Valencia - Home of Paella
Phil arrived to end my lone funding of Helen and her fabulous tastes (a bundle of Mac makeup, nails, gym, hair and a very necessary-for-winter-and-it's-half-price-and-I've-passed-my-exams reversible luxurious coat later) and so we ended our Barcelona mother/daughter and quite-a-few-friends time and carried on to Valencia - home of paella, oranges and Santo Tomas, our Bomba rice supplier.
We travelled by train, which is much more pleasant than a plane, as the general airport experiences of high taxi fares, baggage limits and frequent delays is contrasted by a much calmer, less bureaucratic, generally cheaper and definitely more scenic experience. By the time you count check-in time and delays, it often takes about the same amount of time, and irritation is replaced by relaxation.
Swapping a noisy apartment, with sometimes too much colourful action outside, for her own comfortable quiet hotel room in one of Valencia's more historical streets definitely appealed to Helen, who after our short taxi ride past many gracious old buildings pronounced that Valencia was probably more her sort of city.
And it is a much smaller, less crowded and less edgy, quite beautiful city seemingly full of friendly, helpful Spaniards and cutting edge buildings like the spectacular 'Arts and Science' complex, where I did my best to persuade Helen she was still child enough to try out one of the water balls - but she resisted!
It was Monday and raining and a lot of restaurants are closed, so we went to one recommended by the hotel where we decided to give the rice dishes a miss as we were due to see 'Santo Tomas Arroz' the following day so chose cod, veal and duck instead. Hmmm, this is where it seems that Barcelona has it over Valencia, as most of the dining experiences we had in our short time there that didn't involve rice or tapas style seafood were, quite frankly, awful. Deep fried meat, rich gluggy sauces and tough overcooked duck were a bit of a theme. Must do more research next time! The orange juice is however fantastic, as are the sights. Not only the aforementioned beautiful buildings, but also a fabulous park to exercise or wander in, borne of the riverbed of the diverted Turia River, where it seemed half of the Valencian citizens and many of its tourists delighted in its varied offerings.
Since we had our exercise gear with us we enjoyed a morning fast-walk past football (never soccer!) games, cyclists, lovers, dog parks, scenic water features, one playground featuring a reclining Don Quixote figure to climb over, another with a rope climbing frame and a couple of sets of fixed exercise machinery where muscle toning was the theme.
We settled at the cafe afterwards then followed the sounds of castanets to find a group of tourists being taught the basics of flamenco, complete with clicking and stamping - quite hard to achieve together, it seems!
Aside from admiring the beautiful sights of Valencia, the real reason we had come was to visit our Bomba rice supplier, Sergio Tomas (pronounced Spanish style!) at Santo Tomas.
The mill is located in the area of the Albufera Natural Park, whose 'sweet' water is used to flood the rice fields. This contributes to the high quality and good flavour of the rice. The rice is planted in late May and harvested in October, so we were a little early to see the plants growing, but certainly this did not detract from the opportunity to experience the beauty of the river and its environs.
The river is full of fish and wildlife including a lot of ducks and interesting stork-like birds, who barely flicked an eyelid, let alone moved, as we chugged by. The people are very friendly and relaxed and you get the impression that the main change in the last hundred years or so is the addition of motors to the boats, so they don't have to row anymore.
A group of 'working' men, most a little older, were enjoying a table in the sun when we arrived to get on the traditional boat around 10:30am.
They were still there an hour or so later when we arrived back, then moved inside and we could soon hear military songs complete with trumpet issuing from the large room. By the time we left, after stopping for a beer, water, olives and very good potato chips fried in olive oil, there were loud strains of Doris Day's 'Que Sera, Sera' being played. Apparently these buddies had all served in the military together, were lifelong friends, and fished from around 5am daily. This was their regular routine.
Back at the mill, which has a small regular staff of round 12 in total, we were shown how they select the rice, check the initial quality, husk it in a very natural way and then using slightly more modern technology expel broken, misshapen or sub-par grains. Apparently other mills do not have this technology and it means only the better quality Bomba is packed into those little cloth Santo Tomas bags you see on our shelves.
Of course, by then it was 2 o'clock and time for lunch!
Off we went to a traditional, local restaurant which was in sight of the city as here 'il campo' (the country) is only really about 10 minutes away from 'la ciudad' (the city).
We enjoyed a selection of local dishes including cod croquettes, a local version of deep-fried whitebait fritters, potent alioli and ground tomato, bacalao and peppers, tellinas (mini pipis), eel and potato - and of course, paella. This was a traditional Valencian one, so only garlic and tomato are used as the base and the other ingredients were rabbit, snails, duck, a traditional large black tipped, white bean called garrafon, rice, saffron, green beans and water. This was accompanied by a very non-touristy potent version of Sangria and we finished with a traditional cinnamon and pine nut cake and orange mousse.
Quite a long, large and delicious lunch where I was welcomed into the kitchen to take a few photos. Very nice people.