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Friday, February 06, 2009

Why Valencia?

Photo by Juan Flores

Why Valencia?

As far as where I chose to live when I moved to Spain I have to say that my selection process was a bit on the random side. I knew for a long time that I wanted to live in Europe again, somewhere, anywhere. I was deciding between France and Spain when a trip I took with my younger brother to Spain. We visited Madrid, Sevilla, and Toledo on what was one of the best vacations I've ever had, thanks mostly to some friends who live in Madrid who shaped our travel plans. When the time had finally arrived for me to move to Europe, I knew I was going to Spain. As much as I loved Madrid and the other places we visited on that trip, my past experience of living in Greece tipped the scales towards living somewhere on the Mediterranean.

I knew that I wanted to live in a fairly large city as I was comfortable living in a city the size of Seattle and anything smaller would have been like wearing a too-small shoe. I must admit that I never considered M├ílaga, another rather large Spanish Mediterranean city. I considered Barcelona but I was a bit reluctant to move there because of the heavy Catalan influence—I was moving to Spain to learn Spanish, after all. The truth is that before I started looking seriously into moving to Spain, I wasn't even aware that people spoke Valenciano in this part of the country. Valenciano is very similar to Catalan. I would say that it is merely a dialect of Catalan but I might get beat up by some of the more chauvinistic locals for saying that. My knowledge of Valenciano/Catalan is fairly scant, but I still am unable to tell them apart whether spoken or written. I apologize for that.

With a little research into the matter I determined that Valencianos were more apt to speak Spanish—at least in the street—than their counterparts in Catalonia. I had traveled to Barcelona twice before and I loved the city, as almost everyone does. The language issue bothered me a bit and also its size, as I figured that a big city like Barcelona would be more expensive and perhaps less user-friendly for a recent immigrant. I had also traveled to Valencia once before and stayed there for only a day or two on my first trip to Europe. I couldn't remember anything about the city from that trip except the beautiful train station and the huge central market.

I wish that I could say that I spent hours and hours doing painstaking research into my choice for where I was going to move in Europe. I mean, I didn't exactly throw a dart at a map of Spain and then move there with nearly all my remaining worldly possessions. In truth, this would be an insult to dart throwers as there is a bit of skill in that game. No, my selection of my new home was more like a behind the back, over the shoulder toss. I'm not a lucky person by any means—I don't even believe in luck—but in hindsight I would have to say that by choosing Valencia, I hit a bullseye with my throw. I wouldn't change my choice for anything. Once I arrived I thought about perhaps moving to another Spanish city to get a fresh perspective on the country, but I could never bring myself to leave Valencia. It's my home. I chose rather well as it turned out. As random as my selection process may seem, I suppose that if I examine it more thoroughly there is quite a bit of logic involved.

I think that I would be very comfortable living just about anywhere on the Mediterranean, my life in Greece taught me that much. I could have moved to Marseilles, or Genoa, or Tunis for that matter, and I would have found much to love about living in those places. The Mediterranean has its own climate with which I was familiar. The weather is far from perfect but there are many months of perfection throughout the year. Time had not erased those cold, wet winters in Greece from my memory, but I could never forget the wonderfully sunny summers. And of course there was the food.

There is an indelible stamp on Mediterranean cooking that can be found in every corner and cove on this inland sea. In our era of global trade, it's possible to get just about any food product you want anywhere on the planet but there were many things I had missed about Mediterranean food. It wasn't just the basic ingredients, things you can probably buy in any good, upscale supermarket in the United States, what was missing were all of the little things that when taken together make up the essence of the Mediterranean diet. Things like the wonderfully odd-shaped tomatoes that are impossible to beat when the season is right. The different types of beans that are native to the basin. Olives of every character, shape, and flavor, and olive oils to match any dish. But it wasn't so much the flavor of foods that I missed, it was something else. A grilled sardine, some fried squid, roasted lamb or pork probably taste the same anywhere they are prepared, to say otherwise would be dishonest or verging on the overly-romantic. The element that was missing from Mediterranean cooking when I lived in America was their reverence for food. It's difficult to overstate the importance of food in the lives of the people who inhabit the shores of this sea that has been called the “middle of the earth” by many of the cultures that border it.

On a clearly anecdotal basis, I have to say that everyone I have met from Spain, France, Greece, and Italy all seem to have a much greater appreciation for food than most of the Americans and Brits that I know, unless those Americans or Brits have learned to revere food while living on the Mediterranean. This isn't to say that the Mediterraneans are superior to us, they just take food more seriously than we do. We have different priorities and values. The importance that these people place upon food is something that perhaps we reserve for other things. I wouldn't care to say what these other things might be, but I will say that I find American and British humor to be far superior to the Spanish or French version. They have paella, coq au vin, and risotto. We have Seinfeld and Monty Python's Flying Circus. The good news is that we can share.

I have met Italians, Greeks, French and Spanish people who admit that they can't cook but who can will whip up veritable miracles of simplicity in the kitchen using ingredients common throughout the region. I've never met an Italian who couldn't make some sort of memorable dish with only a bit of pasta, some olive oil, and a vegetable or two—I've also never met an Italian who doesn't eat pasta every day, if not with every meal. It never ceases to amaze me how the Spanish will raise the lowliest of food items to an exalted level. A slice of tomato and a single anchovy will be shaped into an elegant tapa to accompany a beer or a glass of wine; a plate of olives will prime a first course at dinner; even a bag of store-bought potato chips will be decanted into a dish before being served. The have a great respect for food because it is their inheritance, their birthright handed down over centuries.

What I first found to be close-mindedness on the part of Valencianos when it came to modifying—in any way—their local dishes, I soon found was just a respect for their own traditions. There are just certain dishes in their culture that they feel cannot be improved. I feel the same way about a handful of things that I prepare. Change just one ingredient every couple of years, or even every generation and before long you will have lost sight of the original dish entirely. Some of my first impressions of Valencianos regarding their cuisine was of a people hog-tied and impaired by their own traditions. I quickly realized how foolish I was for thinking this; it would be like mocking a person for caring for the foundation of his house. Without embracing their culinary past, every day in the kitchen would be like reinventing the wheel. It took me a while to come around to their way of thinking. I was a decent cook when I arrived in Spain, and inspired amateur at least. As my cooking experience with Valencian food expanded, I came to base my own recipes firmly on the basics. I gradually learned that to know your way around you have to know where you started.