Features

Valencia, Spain: More than just the birthplace of paella

Valencia’s vital relationship with its history is the driving force behind its burgeoning gastronomic and creative community

Photos by Eric Nicole Salta and courtesy of Valencia Tourism Office

Often overlooked for its bigger, flashier siblings, the coastal city of Valencia flaunts an attitude imbued with a laid-back kind of joy and an understated elegance that, strangely enough, took shape as a result of the relentless tourist exodus to Madrid and Barcelona.

Yet it’s no pity party in Valencia and for all its 700,000 inhabitants. Sure, its arsenal may not directly match the swagger of Spain’s capital or Barcelona’s ripping artistic reputation nor does Valencia’s two million tourist count last year come close to Madrid’s six million and Barcelona’s staggering 32 million tourists but the “city divided by a river” isn’t one to sell knockout blows anyway.

An alley at El Barrio Del Carmen, one of the prettiest medieval quarters in Spain

At least not at the beginning. In fact, what all this travel snobbery has done is allow Valencians—locals and adoptive citizens alike—to frame its strengths in contrast to Madrid and Barcelona, find a sweet spot, and build an identity rooted in gastronomy and a tourism model that embraces new heights without losing sense of its history.

“Valencia has many things that Madrid and Barcelona don’t have. It’s an opportunity for the city to be ‘below’ those other cities because Valencia has the potential to grow and in fact it’s got the tools and things to be able to grow,” says chef Miguel Ángel Mayor of Sucede Restaurant. “The only thing we have to do is believe in ourselves and work for it.”

“It’s a philosophy,” says Eva Fernández of Turismo Valencia. “The government and the community try to communicate that philosophy [of preserving history and pushing for sustainability]. That’s the way the city should work.”

“Valencia has many things that Madrid and Barcelona don’t have. It’s an opportunity for the city to be ‘below’ those other cities because Valencia has the potential to grow and in fact it’s got the tools and things to be able to grow,” says chef Miguel Ángel Mayor of Sucede Restaurant. “The only thing we have to do is believe in ourselves and work for it.”

GO HIGH
Sea Saffron founder Eduardo Aguilar

It’s a conviction that informs all aspects of Valencia, most especially the young generation. Twenty-four-year-old Eduardo Aguilar’s attitude towards his hometown may be the one that spurs the city through the edge of the cliff and force it to fly past its limitations. And it isn’t an understatement.

Aguilar’s startup Sea Saffron is an accomplishment in both its intent and emotional beginnings. The uniquely artisan tour company was Aguilar’s thesis for his business management degree at EDEM Escuela de Empresarios before going full steam ahead with the idea—gaining support from various stakeholders keen on investing in and giving back to their community, including Valencia native and president of Spanish supermarket chain Mercadona, Juan Roig. Through Proyecto Lanzadera, a program that helps young entrepreneurs set up their businesses, Aguilar was able to hit the ground running after three years.

“I have the feeling that we’ve been shifting from that model of Valencia where people only come for the beach or sun to something centered on culture and gastronomy. That’s like diversifying the branding or positioning of the city,” Eduardo Aguilar says, adding that while tourism is growing at a rate that is comfortable for them, he believes that entrepreneurs need to see it from a different perspective. In his case, the intention of Sea Saffron to sculpt an ode to the city’s finest and post-modern future.

Sea Saffron draws on the landmarks and strengths of Valencia’s treasures to create a luminous portrait of the city. With two daily tours to choose from starting either at the hotel or the cruise ship—which is also one of their biggest clients—Aguilar’s method of madness is more like a love letter to Valencia, springing forth from various directions.

There’s the walk into the Turia Gardens, a former riverbed turned into a nine-kilometer stretch of activity area that has become a hallmark of Valencia’s visual vocabulary, then the leisurely maze around the massive City of Arts and Sciences complex built in 1998 and completed in 2005 by architect Santiago Calatrava before finally zooming up into the 377-foot Torre de Francia—the highest residential building in the city—for blissed-out views of Valencia and its surrounding municipalities.

In the penthouse, the gastronomic experience follows the same formula: the 10-course tasting menu is an homage to homegrown produce transformed into unfussy but exceptional fare—olives marinated in herbs, coca with zucchini and ginger, seafood toasts with blue cheese and walnuts—and interspersed with Valencian hospitality and a proud love for the region as Aguilar carefully identifies and points out the locations of the ingredients populating the dishes from the rooftop’s vantage point.    

Vegetables are also usually sourced in Huerta Valenciana
The ingredients in Sea Saffron’s tasting menu are sourced from within the region
Valencian wine brand Mustiguillo

“The idea of the company is to always present a menu from seasonal ingredients paired with local and regional wines,” says Aguilar. “One of our most important DOs or denominación de origen, which is a classification system for wines and other food products, is DO Utiel-Requena, a wine-growing region.” Two of their best wines according to Aguilar is a mestizaje from Mustiguillo, a blend made primarily with merseguera grapes, and the full-bodied red Rafael Cambra Dos (DO Valencia) using monastrell grapes.

Maria José Martinez of trendsetting restaurant Lienzo agrees with Aguilar’s concise vision. “We have to defend the seasonality,” she says. “It’s very important to eat products when nature marked when they should be on this planet. To go against nature is what is leading the world towards extinction of food as we know them today.”

Balancing preservation with the desire to innovate is also one of the more challenging characteristics of creating a niche in a city grappling with its identity. Not that it can’t be done but there’s the tendency to snap from that kind of tension.

“We have to defend the seasonality,” Maria José Martinez of Lienzo says. “It’s very important to eat products when nature marked when they should be on this planet. To go against nature is what is leading the world towards extinction of food as we know them today.”

“I have the feeling that we’ve been shifting from that model of Valencia where people only come for the beach or sun to something centered on culture and gastronomy. That’s like diversifying the branding or positioning of the city,” Aguilar says, adding that while tourism is growing at a rate that is comfortable for them, he believes that entrepreneurs need to see it from a different perspective. In his case, the intention of Sea Saffron to sculpt an ode to the city’s finest and post-modern future.

“We are actually turning it into an opportunity because we are like the younger sibling of Madrid and Barcelona and for many travelers, Valencia is still a bit more pure. Valencia still has that sense of undiscovered quality and that balance of not being overwhelmed and becoming a sustainable tourism model.”

FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
Miguel Angel Mayor

Nonetheless, Valencia’s laid-back quality makes it an irresistible talent incubator. And like Aguilar, the land itself is key for Ángel Mayor of Michelin-starred restaurant Sucede.

Underneath most unsuspecting passersby lies a space at the basement level of Caro Hotel, a former 19th century palace where Valencia’s Roman, Arabic, and Christian history are preserved beautifully and coupled with an imaginative penchant for modern menus. But it wasn’t always like that according to Ángel Mayor.

“When I started, I didn’t have a real vision because I didn’t know the philosophy of the place so the vision was built after I talked to the owner and explained my idea, my philosophy, the idea of preserving history through this place,” says Ángel Mayor. “In the beginning, we didn’t want to change it gastronomically and to just give it continuity but when we were building this, we understood that we could do much more.”

Interiors at Sucede marries contemporary and ancient relics

Unlike its previous iteration where guests only had lunch in one area, the restaurant adorned with Moorish lanterns, Gothic tiles, and a glass roof is laid out in different sections, each with its own historical importance, to take diners on a culinary journey “inside” and “outside” of the city depending on where they stand from the original Arabic wall. “That way you are having a trip through history,” he says. “The last part of the restaurant, that was a restaurant in Roman times where gladiators rested or had lunch before going to the circus.”

Ángel Mayor wasn’t the first one to see potential in this space but he’s one of the more accomplished thinkers to act on his role as a creative catalyst. Originally from Barcelona who had also worked with Ferran Adria at elBulli Foundation and Quique Dacosta at Mercat Bar, Ángel Mayor says that the appeal of Valencia lies in the freedom to explore and experiment while retaining a more relaxed pace of life. But the gradual status change from an overlooked city to one that befits its tourism slogan (“Visit Valencia”) will offer locals more opportunities to tell their stories.

Miguel Ángel Mayor wasn’t the first one to see potential in this space but he’s one of the more accomplished thinkers to act on his role as a creative catalyst. Originally from Barcelona who had also worked with Ferran Adria at elBulli Foundation and Quique Dacosta at Mercat Bar, Ángel Mayor says that the appeal of Valencia lies in the freedom to explore and experiment while retaining a more relaxed pace of life.

“There’s been a positive change,” he says, “but the main problem is that even the gastronomic community does not believe that they could be on top. It’s a problem of behavior.” Which is why it’s important for the likes of Ángel Mayor, Vicente Patiño of traditional Valencian restaurant Sucar, and Lienzo’s Martinez to redefine the possibilities of Valencian gastronomy.

Maria José Martinez
Squid in low temperature, dashi, ginger and its “tuille” at Lienzo
Artsy elements fill the blank canvas of Lienzo
Titaina from Vicente Patiño’s Sucar is a traditional dish from the El Cabañal district made with tomatoes and pinñones

“Gastronomically, you might not come out of [the city] in years and be continually surprised,” says Martinez who, under her helm, transformed the artistic restaurant Lienzo into a reference point for gastronomy guides and earned a ‘Bib Gourmand’ from the Michelin Guide as well as a Sol Repsol (Repsol sun) distinction.

When asked about the future of the city’s gastronomy, she says Valencia is fast coming into its own as a forward-thinking food destination and acknowledges the “promising future” barreled through by the energy of the younger generation. “Seeing all these people coming from schools, the desire they have and how well they are formed. There is a promising future.”

VENTURE FORTH
Mercat Central is arguably one of the biggest markets in Europe
The market also follows a Valencian art nouveau style
Local craft beers are also steadily making a mark in the city. Pictured here are bottles found in the store Original CV, which carries authentic Valencian products

It’s not just gastronomy that’s picking up the pace. Many of the old palaces and cultural structures are being converted for various purposes, signaling that even historic districts can be fertile grounds for redeveloping the existing landscape. The most obvious example is Convent Carmen. Built in 1609, the former Convent of Saint José and Saint Teresa is a result of Ángel Mayor’s vision of adaptively reusing the space into a cultural hub where concerts, lectures, exhibitions, sports, and food can all happen simultaneously. 

“When we had the opportunity to have that place, we didn’t know what we were going to do with it,” he says. “But we were sure about something: We wanted to open it to the whole society.” This simple assessment all adds up to a culinary solution that represents how a keen awareness of trends gives balance to an idea. “We understood that we have good choices (like bravas, Russian salads, chicken dishes, and gin and tonics) when we saw people entering at noon and leaving at 10pm.”

It’s not just gastronomy that’s picking up the pace. Many of the old palaces and cultural structures are being converted for various purposes, signaling that even historic districts can be fertile grounds for redeveloping the existing landscape.

“When we think that way, we are communicating our own identity and people come in to know that identity,” says Ángel Mayor. “We presume that there are going to be people who aren’t going to like that project but the people who do come in to know it are going to have more loyalty.”

Paella is a “proximity” recipe, which means that ingredients used are normally dependent on what can be sourced in the area
Agua de Valencia is an alcoholic drink made with orange juice, cava, and other liquors

That isn’t to say that Valencia should relinquish its delicious past. From anguilas en all i pebre (eels with garlic and paprika) and esgarraet (red pepper, cured cod, garlic, and olive oil salad) to Agua de Valencia (cocktail of cava, orange juice and vodka) and its standout dish of paella, a willingness to meld the past and present will only raise the city’s food  profile beyond a niche market.

Regardless of what context Valencia adopts into the future, it’s evident that the city is transitioning into a more adept and flexible community, slowly liberating itself from self-imposed constraints and outside perceptions in favor of formats that tap into its collectives’ own gastronomic strengths, human experiences, and relationship with history.

Paella, originating from the Albufera Natural Park, is still a cornerstone that surrounds the gastronomic core of the region. The rice stew remains a personal affair with safeguards that include rice certifications for its three local varieties ((Bomba, Senia, and Bahia), an annual World Paella Day celebrated every 20th of September, and establishments like Mateu, which has been serving the dish since 1968, to protect its heritage.

Regardless of what context Valencia adopts into the future, it’s evident that the city is transitioning into a more adept and flexible community, slowly liberating itself from self-imposed constraints and outside perceptions in favor of formats that tap into its collectives’ own gastronomic strengths, human experiences, and relationship with history.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive all the tools and solutions entrepreneurs need to stay updated on the latest news in the industry

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.