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Spain’s Next Food Mecca

Valencia is famous for classic rice dishes like paella, but as Anya von Bremzen discovers, chefs in the city and nearby are creating brilliant riffs on the timeless recipes.

Here’s a question I hear again and again: After the Basque food boom and the culinary revolution sparked by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Catalonia, what’s the next great dining destination in Spain? Right now, all compasses point to El Levante, a region along the eastern coast that includes the provinces of Valencia and Alicante. Famous for its vegetable gardens and orange groves, rice paddies and fishing ports, El Levante is where Spanish cuisine shows off its vibrantly Mediterranean side. Here, too, a new generation of chefs is marrying traditional flavors with futuristic techniques, and, in many cases, completely reimagining the area’s numerous rice dishes—including its famous paella. Curious to see what these contemporary chefs are doing with rice, I recently charted a trip from Valencia south to Alicante that would take me to some of the region’s most noteworthy restaurants—and one incredible pastry shop.

Valencia Comes of Age

My odyssey began in Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city and the site of an ongoing, dramatic urban renewal. One major catalyst for Valencia’s boom was the City of Arts and Sciences, a futuristic museum and cultural complex partly designed by the city’s visionary son, Santiago Calatrava, and completed in 2005. Valencia is also constructing a glitzy marina and waterfront area in preparation for the America’s Cup this summer. Style-watchers who are proclaiming the city the next Barcelona are not far off their mark, though I rather miss Valencia’s former ramshackle charm.

Before plunging into the world of avant-garde architecture and experimental cuisine, I decided to revisit some of Valencia’s classic attractions. I ambled through the main market, Mercado Central, housed in a soaring Art Nouveau building; sipped some horchata, a milky drink made with pressed tiger nuts, at Horchatería el Siglo; then headed over to the Gothic chapel at the cathedral to peek at what some consider to be the remains of the Holy Grail.

Leaving the cathedral, I noticed a crowd milling outside and realized it was Thursday, the day on which the Tribunal de las Aguas—the Water Court—meets here to settle regional water disputes. This peculiar judicial body was founded in the Middle Ages during the Moorish rule. Here, in Spain’s epicenter of rice production, where irrigation is crucial, the tribunal still maintains absolute authority to adjudicate water conflicts between farmers. I watched eight old men in black robes solemnly gather on the steps of the cathedral and ask anyone with a dispute to come forward. When no one did, they promptly adjourned.

That night, I dined at La Sucursal, a minimalist restaurant inside Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno (IVAM), the city’s contemporary-art museum. Here, chef Javier Andrés has put together a menu of modern—although not wildly avant-garde—dishes like lobster with garlic shoots in a light chorizo emulsion. His rice—creamy like a risotto, studded with clams and lightly infused with ginger—came concealed under some paper-thin petals of octopus carpaccio. A paella this wasn’t. "Tourists come to Valencia expecting only paella," my friend, local food critic Pedro García Mocholí, had told me. "But what our local taste buds really crave most are caldoso [soupy] and meloso [moist] rices."

After dinner, Andrés came out to talk about a miracle pressure cooker he invented in collaboration with research scientists and with Sergio Torres, chef at El Rodat in the nearby coastal town of Jávea. Called the Gastrovac, it vacuum-cooks ingredients at a low temperature with very low levels of oxygen, then infuses them with a poaching liquid. "Imagine," Pedro said gleefully, "a lowly button mushroom suddenly impregnated with the flavor of truffles!" The company that markets the Gastrovac can’t seem to sell it fast enough to gadget-loving chefs like Adrià at El Bulli and Wylie Dufresne of New York City’s WD-50.

Not Your Grandma’s Paella

What traditionalists tell you about paella is that you just don’t mess with it: You have to use the same rice (the local short-grained variety, of course), the same pan and the same grain-to-liquid ratio. Paella is traditionally prepared with rice cooked to a dry consistency together with rabbit and snails, but radical-minded chefs are subverting the classic recipe.

The next day, for a taste of paella that has been successfully altered—plus possibly the greatest seafood in the Mediterranean—I headed over to have dinner at Ca’Sento, where the 36-year-old El Bulli alumnus Raúl Aleixandre is working miracles with the region’s luminous fish.

My meal consisted of dátiles del mar (or sea dates, which are rare mollusks that live inside rocks on the seafloor), entrapped in a faux cannelloni made of their own briny gelatin; stunning salt-roasted cigalas (langoustines); and, for dessert, a bowlful of berries, tiny vegetables and edible flowers dressed in an aromatic rum vinaigrette. And, inevitably, there was rice. Although Aleixandre’s mother, Mari, is one of Valencia’s great traditional cooks, he takes a perverse pleasure in defying her rules. Once he served me an inverted paella, with the socarrat (the crunchy layer of rice that sticks to the pan) presented on top as a tissue-thin hat.

Tonight’s stunt was a riff on a folksy seafood-rice preparation with cauliflower and cuttlefish. In front of me was a bowl of puffy rice beads that resembled Rice Krispies, next to a mound of cuttlefish tendrils and cauliflower florets. As I contemplated this abstract collage, the waiter poured black cuttlefish broth over everything. The flavors came together with all their traditional force—a deconstructive trick that Spanish chefs pull off brilliantly.

Back in the kitchen, Aleixandre explained the puffing technique. He boils the rice for two hours, until it turns into a paste, and then rolls it out to dry for two days until it turns into a powder. When bits of the mixture are dropped into hot oil, they form puffy pellets with an unusually intense ricey taste. I promised Aleixandre I would try this at home. He wished me luck.

Alicante: Seafood and Sweets

Munching on a slab of turrón—El Levante’s signature almond-and-honey confection—I sped south down the highway toward Alicante, a province that has an improbable concentration of world-class restaurants. In the rest of Spain, cooking remains mostly a macho activity, but Alicante is known for its outstanding female chefs—all of them rice divas. One, Pepa Romans, works at Casa Pepa, in an idyllic 140-year-old farmhouse a half hour’s drive north of Alicante City. Another, María José San Román, runs Monastrell, a strikingly designed restaurant in the center of town that serves earthy dishes like rice with carrots, cauliflower and Swiss chard alongside more inventive creations.

I was already familiar with both restaurants, so I was eager to taste the cooking of Mari Carmen Vélez, who runs La Sirena, a restaurant that Spanish food critics had described to me with a swoon. La Sirena is in Petrer, a nondescript provincial town adjacent to Elda, the center of Spain’s shoe industry.

The prospect of visiting the local shoe museum in Elda was tempting, but before lunch I had a rendezvous with Paco Torreblanca at his workshop in nearby Monovar. An innovative pastry artist, Torreblanca became famous in Spain after he designed the cake for the wedding of Crown Prince Felipe—a sculptural layering of milk and dark chocolates, olive oil brioche, almonds and fruit.

Torreblanca greeted me at his marbled, temperature-controlled atelier filled with high-tech pastry paraphernalia. I must have spent a good half hour gawking at a computer-operated contraption that uses ultrasound to cut pastries into various shapes with scary precision. "French pastries have become predictable; in Spain, we break molds," Torreblanca mused while showing me his whimsical cakes and bonbons, many of which incorporated savory flavors like olive oil, curry and salt. He sells his sweets at his two Totel shops in Elda. (He also has two shops in Madrid.)

After stopping by Totel, I strolled over for lunch at La Sirena, where Vélez had saved me a table in the jammed dining room. Vélez’s clean, neotraditional cooking with an occasional avant-garde flourish is at the forefront of Spain’s "back to real food" movement—which emphasizes pure flavor and amazing local ingredients over space-age techniques. Vélez sent out a sparkling sea bass carpaccio and a scoop of tart apple granita; a thin, crumbly coca (flatbread) layered with anchovies and marinated wild berries; and an epic arroz a banda, a mariners’ dish that Vélez makes from rice fortified with an insanely flavorful fish stock and presents with monkfish, squid and shrimp.

The Rice Revolutionary

My trip ended at El Poblet, the region’s most talked-about restaurant, which sits on a coastal road near Dénia, a once picturesque fishing village overrun with German vacationers. Joining me for lunch was my friend Santos Ruiz, a rice agronomist. El Poblet’s chef-owner, Quique Dacosta, who is self-taught and looks like a hipster professor, has earned a reputation as Spain’s leading young talent—and recently a second Michelin star—by subjecting obscure local flora and marine fauna to truly alchemical treatments. Lately, he’s been experimenting with aloe vera, which he discovered has miraculous gelling and emulsifying properties. And he’s been playing with "mineralization," using metals and minerals to create tour-de-force dishes like oysters Guggenheim Bilbao, designed to look like the museum. The dish is made up of mollusks warmed over juniper charcoal, swathed in a veil of oyster essence and an edible alloy of titanium and silver, and decorated with silvery scraps of edible paper.

This being El Levante, the conversation eventually shifted to rice, specifically Dacosta’s new book, Arroces Contemporáneos (Contemporary Rices). "Valencians surround their rice culture with myths and mysteries," said Santos, who worked on the book with Dacosta. "But when we subjected the myths to scientific scrutiny, many of them didn’t hold up. That famous claim that you can’t make paella without that special Valencian water? Baloney. As for that sacred carbon steel paella pan—well, it’s a pretty flawed rice-cooking utensil."

Dacosta does fascinating things with rice, working with a variety of grains—basmati, Carnaroli, local strains like bomba and senia. Among his creations is a rosemary-infused basmati topped with faux noodles fashioned from fish stock; mascarpone risotto decorated with salted chocolate; and a creamy arroz with smoked eel broth and sour cherries—an arresting contrast of earthy and sweet.

So, how do you make perfect rice? I asked Dacosta over dessert, a gelee of stevia rebaudiana (a Paraguayan plant whose extract is 300 times sweeter than table sugar). He grabbed my notebook and started frantically scribbling down charts and diagrams and chemical formulas. As he was drawing, I made a mental note to head back to the market in Valencia and clarify the issue with a local grandma.

Anya von Bremzen is the author of The New Spanish Table.

Published February 2007
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