Valencia's Coastal Cuisine: Spanish Cooking at its Best

Finds from the Mediterranean Sea and Albufera lagoon abound at Valencia's expansive Mercado Central. Jennifer Olvera
By Jennifer Olvera

Spain is a destination for food lovers and Valencia is no exception. Situated in the eastern part of the country along the Mediterranean Sea, it resides within the Comunidad Valenciana -- one of the country's autonomous communities, which includes Castellón, Alicante, and Valencia proper.

Widely recognized for rice dishes dry (paella), wet (arroz caldoso), and oven-baked (arroz al horno), Valencia also is famed for its oranges and refreshing, cinnamon-y horchata de chufa, a concoction made from the tiger nut tuber. Naturally, though, there's more than meets the eye.

Valencia's proximity to waterways profoundly impacts what's on plate. A sight to behold, its endless array of seafood -- plucked from the briny deep and freshwater Albufera lagoon -- arrives glistening to stalls at the city's central market.When vacationing in Valencia, consider leaving the skinny jeans at home, and prepare to loosen your belt. Overindulgence -- especially of the seafaring kind -- is required.

Photo Caption: Finds from the Mediterranean Sea and Albufera lagoon abound at Valencia's expansive Mercado Central.
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People eat a lot of eel in Valencia, much of it hailing from the Albufera lagoon. Jennifer Olvera
The basics: Albufera lagoon is situated within Parque Natural de la Albufera, seven miles south of Valencia. Its fishing culture is deeply ingrained; in fact, the flora and fauna-flanked waters have fed untold numbers since prehistoric times.

What to do: Many eco-boating operations exist within the park, ferrying travelers on gondola-esque, flat-bottomed boats past humble, reed-roofed fishing huts and workers netting fin food, including thick, wriggling eels, tenca and mullet.

When to go: Rides operate, weather permitting, from early spring through early fall, when temperatures are most comfortable. Sunshine is abundant in the region, making rainouts unlikely.

Contact: Albufera Parc, tel. 96-162-00-56; www.albuferaparc.com

Photo Caption: People eat a lot of eel in Valencia, much of it hailing from the Albufera lagoon.
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Finds from the Mediterranean Sea and Albufera lagoon abound at Valencia's expansive Mercado Central. Jennifer Olvera
The basics: Housed in a soaring Modernist building, this ornate, domed public market is among the longest running in Europe. Loaded with interesting architectural details, it's also a food enthusiasts' paradise.

When to go: Arrive early in the morning, when light filters through stained glass windows and fresh fish is brought in from the harbor. The market is open Monday through Saturday from early morning to mid-afternoon. 

What you'll see: Kaleidoscopic produce and towers of pimentón give way to haunches of jamón, bottles of olive oil and Valencian wine. Most impressive, though, is the market's selection of fresh seafood, which tempts passersby from beds of ice.

Contact: Plaza del Mercado, tel. 96-382-91-00; www.mercadocentralvalencia.es

Photo Caption: Finds from the Mediterranean Sea and Albufera lagoon abound at Valencia's expansive Mercado Central.
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Varying textures add interest to artsy, seafood-centric preparations at Brasserie Sorolla. Jennifer Olvera
The basics: Perched along the boardwalk at Malvarrosa Beach in a fishermen's neighborhood, this tony eatery is adjacent to the America's Cup port and near where seafood is hauled in and auctioned off to wholesalers.

When to go: Dine midday, when sunshine glints off the water and meals are served at a leisurely pace.

What to eat: The oft-changing menu holds much appeal, be it scallops in dashi broth or marinated salmon and prawns atop ultra-creamy avocado and fresh cheese sauce with slivers of pickled radish.

Contact: Hotel Las Arenas, tel. 96-312-06-00; www.hotelvalencialasarenas.com

Photo Caption: Varying textures add interest to artsy, seafood-centric preparations at Brasserie Sorolla.
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Cooking paella outdoors over an orange-wood fire at La Matandeta yields smoky results. Jennifer Olvera
The basics: This rustic, family-run eatery is nestled on a farm surrounded by "bomba" rice fields. It's quaint and idyllic, but it's also noteworthy -- so much so it hosted Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow, who came to prepare paella for the PBS series Spain... On the Road Again.

When to go: Come for lunch, Spaniards' main meal, which may begin as late as mid-afternoon.

What to do: Take a paella workshop. Owners serve snacks on the terrace and prepare paella over an open, orange-wood fire. Earthy spices, liquid and rice are added, and the mélange morphs in to a sharable feast -- one that's enjoyed in multi-course fashion in the low-key dining room. The menu also features grilled cod -- fresh off the boat -- and arroz de marisco y algas, shellfish and seaweed rice.

Contact: Carretera Alfafar-El Saler, km 4, Alfafar, tel. 96-211-21-84; www.lamatandeta.es

Photo Caption: Cooking paella outdoors over an orange-wood fire at La Matandeta yields smoky results.
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If you're lucky, lunch at AB Vinatea may include squid stuffed with sweet onion confit. Jennifer Olvera
The basics: Located in a clubby-meets-modern, centrally located hotel, this sleek eatery with a separate entrance specializes in inventive, local fare.

When to go: In the afternoon, when set-price menus and affordable a la carte offerings save bank.

What to eat: Known for its showy rice dishes, the restaurant also makes a mean array of seafood dishes -- like a trio of squid, filled with meltingly caramelized onions on a painterly plate.

Contact: Hotel Ayre Astoria Palace, tel. 96-398-10-00; www.hotelastoriapalace.com/ingles/index.asp

Photo Caption: If you're lucky, lunch at AB Vinatea may include squid stuffed with sweet onion confit.
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Ricard Camarena teases the palate with weirdly wonderful dishes, like an airy, cod brandade-inspired cube. Jennifer Olvera
When to go: Mosey over to this cool, steel-hued brainchild of Michelin-starred Ricard Camarena after exploring the Roman ruins at the Plaza de l'Almoina. It's set in a former palace with vaulted stone doorways and a futuristic, peek-a-boo kitchen.

What to eat: Order the tasting menu, which proves things -- like a flash-frozen, cloud-like take on cod brandade -- are not always what they seem. Don't worry, though: meals don't feel contrived. Other dishes, such as planks of tuna atop sliced green beans and green bean puree, show surprising restraint.

Contact: C/Almirante 14, tel. 96-392-55-66; www.arrop.com

Photo Caption: Ricard Camarena teases the palate with weirdly wonderful dishes, like an airy, cod brandade-inspired cube.
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