Market research: A gastronomic tour of Valencia

Valencia's markets are packed full of fresh local produce and the restaurants serve up plate-loads of Spanish delights. Cookery expert Camilla Schneideman gets to the gastronomic heart of a food-lover's paradise

At the moment when my husband first announced the possibility of working in Valencia, the host city for the 2007 America's Cup (sailing's most coveted prize), I think I might have said, "How exciting. I've always wanted to live in Italy."

Granted, I never won any geography prizes at school but I am relieved to report that I was not the only one in our circle who hadn't a clue where Valencia was.

Nevertheless, from a guidebook I learnt the following: Valencia is Spain's (whoops!) third-largest city, situated a convenient three-hour drive south of Barcelona. It possesses a fascinating old town, with noteworthy architecture from the medieval, Gothic and Baroque periods. Its newest addition is a marvel of modern architecture, the City of Arts and Sciences, which encompasses a glitteringly white opera house, science museum, planetarium and aquarium.

Many of its attractions are linked by an ingenious 9km-long park in the (now diverted) Rio Turia river bed... So far, so inviting. But much more exciting, from my point of view, was the prospect of a long, sandy beach lined with restaurants, and the fact that Valencia is the home of the paella.

I had been trying to write The Divertimenti Cookbook for about three years, but with a busy cookery school and café to run, somehow there had never been time. However, with a husband soon to be based in Valencia, and having discovered that the city is also home to one of Europe's most inspirational food markets, I relished the opportunity to spend a few months there, soaking up the atmosphere and testing my recipes with fresh produce. So I found myself packing up my cookery books and kitchen equipment and heading to Spain.

While the excitement and tension building up to the America's Cup mounted, I calmly went about my business, hunting down necessary ingredients, learning enough Spanish to ask for a fish scaled and gutted, and inviting all and sundry to dinner so that the recipes could be given the stamp of approval by Real People.

When you first arrive in Valencia you're immediately struck by an overwhelming sense of "foreignness". It's only a two-hour flight from Britain and yet everything seems utterly different: the smells (mainly on the unsavoury side), the landscape (flat and dotted with orange trees, with a promise of hills in the hazy purple distance) and the people, who speak Castilian Spanish and the vernacular Valenciano language (closely related to Catalan) but categorically do not speak English. Arriving in the centre of the old town some 20 minutes later, my sensation of being somewhere very alien was as strong as ever, but the promise of better things to come increased. True, the drain-pong had intensified rather than diminished; the mountains were nowhere in sight and the people still seemed to insist on talking in strange tongues, but I had a tingling sensation that rather than presenting a problem, these were the keys to enjoying a very Spanish city.

On our first night we ate out in the old town, the Barrio del Carmen, which is the epicentre of Valencian nightlife. It seemed fitting to begin with one of the city's oldest tapas bars and I was delighted by what I found. Bar Pilar is celebrated for its Mediterranean mussels (clotxines in Valenciano), which are served in a simple paprika broth. Below the long, wooden bar is a series of insalubrious-looking buckets to catch the shells. I'm told that this is a relatively new thing; in days gone by, the shells would have been dropped on the floor to be swept up at the end of the night. Getting a table is no mean feat. If you can fit through the door, you wave at a waiter who will hand you a ticket with a number. Then you can wander off and have a drink across the square while you wait for your number to be called.

Once inside, we were seated at one of the world's smallest tables. The menu was traditional but good, as is the case in most Valencian tapas bars. As well as the famous mussels, on that first night I remember falling in love with pescaditos (baby fried fish) and beginning a love affair with sepia a la plancha (grilled cuttlefish brushed with garlic oil) which makes me seriously wonder why we consider cuttlefish to be good enough only for budgerigars in England. Taking a chance on the unknown, we ordered something called pepito which turned out to be fried bread, doughnut-like in consistency, stuffed with tuna, tomatoes and egg. It tasted stunning.

Equally stunning is the food market: Valencia's Mercado Central was constructed in 1928. For the past two years its ceiling has been frustratingly hidden by a moving network of scaffolding. Like so much of the restoration work in Valencia, the pressure was on to get it finished in time for the Cup. This frenzy of building work not only had the effect of darkening the normally bright interior, but also somehow made the market's labyrinth of alleyways particularly confusing to navigate. The moment I thought I had well and truly cracked it, and that I would never misplace my favourite spice vendor again, the scaffolding would shift and I would once again lose my bearings, in the process always discovering some new stall or vendor.

The building work is now almost complete. Just in time, in fact, for the Cup's Prada team to throw a star-studded party in the market that brought the glitterati flooding in. Uncovered, the interior is quite spectacular. The previously hidden roof reveals a central glass dome set into a tiled ceiling depicting oranges in abundance. This is, after all, the Costa del Azahar (orange-blossom coast). Below, trade is brisk. Alongside the thousands of Serrano-style hams on offer - a whole ham on the bone can cost anywhere from €50 (£35) to €350 (£240) - there is a range of Spanish cheeses, poultry sellers who also deal in rabbit (the squeamish should beware: leaving the head and feet intact is normal practice here), and an astounding selection of fruit and vegetables.

At almost any time of year, there is an abundance of something, be it the broad beans sold pre-podded in ready-to-cook batches, the artichokes (as cheap as €1/70p a kilo in season), the deep purple figs which appear for only a few short weeks, or the nisperos (loquats) which are this month's star attraction.

At Christmas, oranges are everywhere. There is one stall that sells only lemons and garlic, and another which sells only snails. In the separate fish hall, the quality and quantity of fresh, gleaming seafood, from sardines to octopus and everything in between, are unsurpassed. Everywhere there is noise. This is Valencia, after all. Stallholders - seemingly all of whom are named either Amparo or Rafael - shout to each other and chat to their customers. It is not unusual to have to wait 20 minutes to be served if conversation is in full flow; a trip to the market is not to be rushed.

I undertook a relaxed attitude to sightseeing, discovering the city slowly by wandering the streets of the old town that surround the central market. Within a 10-minute radius, I discovered the 15th-century Gothic Lonja (the old commodity * * exchange), with its elegant, twisted columns and tranquil courtyard. A while later I explored the cathedral, with its astounding mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture. I wandered through open doors and discovered courtyards and hidden churches that didn't appear in any guidebook. The rest of the time I was busy tasting, testing and cooking - and when I wasn't cooking I was eating out.

Unlike trendy Barcelona, the new wave of Spanish cooking has not yet hit Valencia with full force. Valencians are by definition a traditional bunch and feel less pressure always to be doing something new. In fact, one of my earliest discoveries was that all Valencians always like to do the same thing at the same time. When the streets are deserted on a Sunday afternoon, it is guaranteed that absolutely everyone is eating paella, the secret to which lies in the flavour and texture given by the socarrat - the layer of caramelised rice stuck to the pan. Here, paella is taken seriously; they wouldn't dream of having roast chicken instead.

Although Valencian chefs such as Michelin star-holder Enrique Medina are making a name for themselves, I was keen to discover what the locals were eating. On many evenings we would simply wander until we found something that looked appealing. Fortunately, it took only a couple of days to sniff out a truly excellent tapas bar called Casa Vela. It is separated into a bar on one side and deli counter on the other. The tables are crammed into any remaining available space. You can prop up the bar (if you can get near it), or book a table. Again, the selection of food on offer is traditional - the focus here being more on meat than fish - but I never cease to marvel at how such an array of tempting morsels can be produced by one woman over a hotplate without so much as a chopping board in sight.

Quickly we discovered favourite dishes including revuelto (a mixture of sumptuous scrambled egg and potatoes sautéed in an unhealthy quantity of olive oil) and a platter of grilled vegetables with a thick slice of sirloin steak that melts in the mouth. The ingredients are not tampered with; they just need to be good to start with, and from this I took much inspiration as I worked on the book.

Just across the other side of the Gran Via Marques del Turia (one of Valencia's elegant tree-lined thoroughfares) is the working-class area of Ruzafa. The buildings, painted in pretty, fading colours, with decorated balconies and French windows, have a run-down, shabby feel, but it was here that we stumbled across a fresh new tapas bar called El Fino. The selection proved more varied than usual and included simple dishes of bacalao (salt cod) with an array of excellent sauces. A glass counter displayed razor clams, deep pink prawns and fresh sardines. We were told that in this area, as with so many European cities, more and more bars and restaurants are appearing as young professionals move in before Ruzafa becomes prohibitively expensive.

Back in the old town, there are almost too many restaurants to choose from. The smaller, funky ones add variety to the regular round of tapas bars - although we have discovered to our cost that trying to be different is not always successful. We've certainly learnt to avoid anywhere that lists pineapple or mango among the main courses. One place that seems to be doing it right is the small but buzzy Santa Compaña, tucked behind the Torres de Serrano (the ancient city gates). Chalked on to the blackboard is a well-thought-out wine list, much of which can be ordered by the glass. The food is imaginative: small plates of refreshingly different tapas make a welcome change. Perhaps this is a hint of things to come.

Over the past few months, the America's Cup has transformed the city. Families have moved to Valencia from all over the world to work as sailors, designers, crew and everything in between. An army of lithe young girls has arrived from New Zealand, hoping to earn some euros as nannies during the constant round of America's Cup parties. Whole areas of the city have transformed into America's Cup villages and - much to the annoyance of many locals - property rental prices have gone through the roof. Walking in the park, every second person sports a different item of team kit. Even the taxi drivers have started to speak a smattering of English.

Between the beach and the working port (transformed from a desolate wasteland of cracked pavements and potholed roads) there is now a horseshoe-shaped marina where all of the America's Cup teams are based - much like an oversized Formula One pit lane by the sea. A new canal has been constructed so that the yachts can travel out to sea in full view of the spectators. The whole area feels sophisticated in an un-Valencian sort of way, with whitewashed bars, outdoor sofas to recline on while you watch the glamorous yachty world go by, and dozens of new bars and restaurants. The Valencians, sceptical at first, are now flooding in, and most agree that the new port area will enrich the city regardless of what happens to it once the fancy boats have left.

It will soon be time to return home. My book is complete and published, and I am taking with me a plethora of flavours to add to my culinary repertoire. I shall miss the sweet, charred taste of a squid plucked from the grill, the frantic clamour of the market on a Saturday morning, and the silence of the city on a Sunday when everyone is at lunch. Though Valencia has been changed by the Cup, I only hope that as it moves into the future the city will cling to its traditional heart - and retain the atmosphere that makes it " foreign" in the best possible way.

Camilla Schneideman founded the Divertimenti Cookery School and Café ( www.divertimenti.co.uk; 0870 129 5026) and is the author of 'The Divertimenti Cookbook', published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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