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Monday, May 25, 2009

Valencia, Where You Really Are What You Eat

I have mentioned before that I live next door to the Ruzafa Market, one of the city’s biggest. I awake six days a week to the comings and goings there as trucks begin arriving before the sun rises and things don’t calm down until about 3 pm. It would be impossible for me to ignore food from the vantage point I have a couple of floors above all of this commotion. The whole of life on this Iberian peninsula is somewhat analogous to living next to this vast marketplace for vegetables, meat, seafood, and everything else you need to make just about any sort of Spanish meal you could imagine. Everyone must eat so to say that food is important to Spaniards doesn’t begin to define their attitude about cooking. It would be like saying that water is important to fish. There is a very strong bond that the Spanish have with cooking and it is something that I adopted very early in my residency here in Valencia.

One of the biggest tourist attractions here is the Central Market downtown. It is a big attraction not because there aren’t other noteworthy sites around town but because the Mercado Central is truly something to behold. Its magnificence speaks volumes about the relationship Valencianos have with food. Some cities have a big mosque or a lavish cathedral; Valencia has the Central Market. Its worshippers are devout and extremely loyal bordering at times on the fanatical—if you don’t believe me just try to get between some Valencian granny and her seafood purchase. I’m not saying that violence is common in the markets here but you just need to learn to avoid certain situations, usually those involving an octogenarian, her shopping pushcart, and your rightful place in line. Not only do you have to keep your eye on the golden girls but quite often they have a Yorkshire terrier tied up at one of the exits which are ready to rip your throat out at their command. Survival in this environment requires working knowledge of the law of the jungle mixed with the samurai code.

Something that is difficult for Americans to understand, or at least something that is completely different from our own way of life, is just how much food defines Valencianos, even more so than people from other parts of Spain. I have talking about this with a lot of people lately and at first everyone tells me that in Andalucía food is ridiculously important in day-to-day life, or that in Asturias they have a traditional cuisine second to none, and what about Granada which practically invented tapas? In reply I simply say “paella.” The response I get is either silence or, “Oh yeah, paella. Got me there.”

We Americans have our national flag and Valencianos have paella. Last year when Valencia Club de Fútbol was in the final of the Copa del Rey their fans laid siege to the area around the stadium in Madrid by making paellas during the tailgating parties, or whatever the hell you call them in Spanish. Paella became the battle standard of the contingent from Valencia. I don’t think any other region of Spain has a dish that is quite as iconoclastic as paella Valenciana. As far as the local identity is concerned, food plays almost as big a role as the language, whether that is Spanish or Valenciano.

Once you realize this you may forgive the people here for guarding their recipes for jealously. Change one single ingredient in paella or baked rice and you’ll never hear the end of it from your local friends. You can improvise all you want, just don’t call it by the name they use for that dish. This doesn’t mean that I don’t tease my Valencian friends half to death whenever I cook something. I like to invent enormously elaborate names for the dishes I cook if they detour from the local recipes that are written in stone. “I call this ‘dish rice made in a style remarkably similar to paella but I wouldn’t dare call it paella for fear that some old Valencian grandmother would drop dead if she even got a hint that some immigrant was calling a dish paella when he profaned this venerable recipe by adding a bit of sausage.’” I usually keep going on and on until someone tells me to shut up, and that the point is taken.

Improvisation and variation in cooking are fine but you need to know the basics which provide you with the true north on your gourmet compass. I take great pains when I first learn to make one of the local dishes so that I am as close to the traditional recipe as possible. You will find a certain amount of variation from one person’s version to the next but they are usually fairly similar. When I set out to make a local dish I compare several recipes and boil my version down from all of them assuring that what I make is pure, 100% Valencia.

I have a couple of gurus, so to speak, when it comes to Valencian cooking. One of them is la cocina de Juanry. I think he is about as authentic as you can get. He’s like the Valencian grandmother I never had although I don’t know how he would feel about this relationship.