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Notes from an author: Jason Webster on Valencia

There’s no better way to understand the character of the Spanish city than to tuck in to paella, a local obsession that's far more than the sum of its parts.

By Jason Webster
Published 31 Mar 2020, 15:00 BST, Updated 11 May 2021, 16:32 BST
Plate of paella
Paella is more than just a plate of food in Valencia: it’s a ritual, a passion, a statement of identity and a dish of near-religious importance.
Photograph by Getty Images

Valencia has been a home, a base, a destination and a memory for me over the past 20 years. It’s the birthplace of my wife and two sons and the setting for half a dozen of my books, the Max Cámara crime novels. I’ve learnt its language (Valenciano — don’t ever suggest a Valencian speaks Catalan, its customs, its mannerisms. I’ve leapt naked from its coffee-brown sandy beaches into the salty waters of the Mediterranean; suffered near-permanent ear damage from the madness of its Mascletá fire-cracker concertos; and learnt in the orange groves of the surrounding countryside how to make authentic paella valenciana.

For centuries, Valencia has been an unloved sister within the complicated family that is Spain. Overshadowed by Barcelona to the north and Madrid to the west, it’s been an underdog through much of the country’s history: aristocratic Arab families of Al-Andalus sneered at their Berber co-religionists who tended to settle there; it chose the losing side in the 18th-century War of Spanish Succession; and Franco deliberately neglected it after his Civil War victory in 1939. Ask an average Spaniard today what they think about the various regions that make up the country, and you’ll usually hear a begrudging respect expressed for, say, Andalusia, Galicia, the Basque Country and the rest. But when it comes to Valencia, the attitude is more disdainful. Catalans look down their noses at their ‘less-sophisticated’ cousin to the south, while Castilians find the Valencian joie de vivre superficial.

And yet this overlooks the great achievements of the city. Some of the most influential sons of Spain have hailed from the city. Before becoming (infamous) popes, the Borgias were archbishops there; some of the leading lights of the Spanish Renaissance, not least the ‘father of modern psychology’, Luis Vives, were Valencian; while it was the local Luis Santangel who stumped up the cash for Columbus’s hop across the Atlantic back in 1492. In addition, it’s Valencia that gave Spain what’s now become its national dish, paella.

It’s more than just a plate of food here: it’s a ritual, a passion, a statement of identity and a dish of near-religious importance. At a wedding, you eat paella. When a baby is born, you eat paella. When a family gets together on a Sunday afternoon, they eat paella. No special event is complete without it, nor without the inevitable arguments about how it’s made correctly and what the accepted ingredients are. Take it from me, as a reformed paella extremist, Valencians take it very seriously.

And that’s because in so many ways it both symbolises and defines the city. On its land-ward side, Valencia is surrounded by the lush plains of La Huerta, one of the most fertile areas on earth. So rich is the soil there that typically three crops a year can be harvested from its fields. Meanwhile, just to the south of the city, the marshlands of Albufera were where the Arabs first introduced large-scale rice growing to Europe over a thousand years ago. Combine these, and you get the basic ingredients of paella: beans from the horticultural belt and rice from the paddies constructed by the Moors. Throw in some chicken, rabbit and rosemary, and the paella is practically done. Those scratching their heads at this point, asking where the seafood is, have been led astray by heretics into thinking paella is some kind of surf ’n’ turf dish. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Taking things one step further, you’ll find paella purists who insist that the dish can only be cooked over an open fire using the wood from pines and local orange trees. And of course, only Valencian water can be used in the preparation — I’ve known Valencians fill large water containers and drive them half-way across Europe just so they can make an ‘authentic’ paella once they reach their destination.

Yet paella’s importance is more than just being a symbol of the fertile countryside on which the city’s wealth was originally built: the dish is created out of essentially humble ingredients (except saffron, ever harder to find as it gets cut, like illicit drugs, with fake alternatives). But when put together and cooked in the right way, something extraordinary happens: they harmonise, as if in an alchemist’s crucible, to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. On the one level, paella — like Valencia itself — is a seeming hodge-podge of disparate and even contradictory elements. But combined these can, at times, produce something magical.

Jason's tip: La Pepica, an old haunt of Hemingway’s by the beach, is the place to go. Once you’ve tasted the real thing, you’ll never be the same again.

Jason Webster is the author of Violencia: A New History of Spain: Past, Present and the Future of the West, published by Constable

Discover more stories from our Notes from an author series

Published in the European Cities Collection, distributed with the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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