In search of... good food in Alicante

A revolution in cuisine is sweeping the land of rice. Charles de Ledesma finds it all very Moorish

Monday 10 September 2001 00:00 BST

The Spanish Mediterranean city of Alicante was founded by the Romans who called it Lucentum, the city of light. With the early summer sun striking the wide, palm-lined avenidas and steep, narrow carrers, the white yachts glistening in the sea and the city's chief monument, the Castillo de Santa Barbara, towering above, the play of light and shadow hasn't altered much over the millennia. But in recent years Alicante has changed dramatically. The charming old town, El Barrio, has had a good scrub down; a sports marina has transformed the old harbour; a wonderfully interactive, world-class museum, MARQ – Museo Arqueologico de Alicante – has opened, and, if you are guided by the whims of your stomach, there are restaurants to search out which are rebelling against Spanish orthodoxy, eschewing bucketfuls of oil in an exciting take on nuevo Mediterranean cuisine.

So, minute portions of paella all round?

Carlos Llorca, the Alicante-based author of Gastro Guia de Costa Blanca, says the small city has truly come into its own in the past few years. Guided by recent gastronomic developments in the Basque country and Barcelona, aided by a surfeit of fresh ingredients and complemented by a progressive, urban attitude, food here is flourishing creatively.

Around Valencia, further north, you'll find great paellas but I was after such local delights as arroz con costra (rice with meats or beans and an egg crust), arroz a banda (the classic fisherman's seafood meal) and arroz negro (squid in its ink and rice) as well as sweets such as turron (almond nougat), leche frita and tocino de cielo (egg yolk and caramel).

In Spain, rice arrived with Arab farmers and, despite malarial infestations, generally grows well slightly further south than Alicante, in El Levante, Andalusia. Times were hard, though, and the region for many centuries was called "terra de arroz, terra de plos" ("land of rice, land of tears"). The Moors have played a great role in the cuisine of this region. They re-established azafran (saffron), which had gone to seed since Roman occupancy. They brought almond plants – now almond production is one of Alicante province's biggest agricultural exports. And vegetables including aubergine, spinach and asparagus were brought here, too.

A fusion of Spanish and Moorish ingredients? Mmm, sounds good. Where do we find it?

I headed away from my hotel beside the town beach, Playa de Postiguet, to the splendid baroque Ayuntamiento (City Hall), passing the popular tapas bar, Le Meson de Labradores. A few metres west lies the snug, car-less, palm-shaded Placa La Santissima and La Meson La Roda, a near-perfect outdoor lunch location. But disaster! I can't have the rice dishes as they can be prepared only for two and I am just one. However, I find nothing wrong with a chilled gazpacho Andaluz and a zarzuela mariner, a spicy shellfish stew washed down by a white Villemar wine. It's sometimes said that a zarzuela encapsulates the fusionist cuisine of this part of Spain. It is certainly a violent kind of dish; all claws, blood-red juice and crisp membranes.

Erm, what about vegetarians?

The one place with an extensive vegetarian menu is Mixto Vegetariano in El Barrio's Plaza Santa Maria, where, the owner Signora Mercedes emphasises, only the freshest ingredients are used. Sitting at one of her rickety tables in the cobbled square we both enjoyed a tasty garbanza bean and pea soup and my partner ate the local dish arroz al horno (rice with chick peas) with a side dish of la plancha (crunchy vegetables in olive oil). Vegetarianism is not compulsory: I chose foguera, a plate of rice, lamb and tomatoes called after the city's most hearty and exuberant festival, Les Fogueras de Sant Joan in late June, when bonfires burn effigies in a celebration of purgation.

While there it's worth taking a quick look around the square's two main attractions, the gothic Iglesia de Santa Maria and the fine art collection – including some Miro and Picasso – at the Museo de la Asegurada.

Can I stock up for the larder at home?

Next day I explored the cavernous central market on Avenida Alfonso, named after the Castilian king who regained the region from the Arabs in the 13th century. The neat stalls sell a riot of fruit and vegetables as well as salzones (condensed meat blocks), bacalao (salted cod), embutidos (sausages) and cheese. The fish stands are closed, but this is Monday, the quietest day of the fishing week. Carlos Llorca tells me most restaurateurs trek 30km south to Santa Pola where the best denton, a local fish, sea bream, monkfish and seafood arrives.

All that shopping has made me hungry

Llorca had advised us that the most innovative restaurant in town is Tragallum, so around 10pm we headed up Avenida Rambla for a customary late dinner. Chef and owner Raphael Salinas explains that Tragallum loosely means skylight. "We are light on oil and big on fresh ingredients. I interpret traditional dishes in a new way." We soon discovered that his cooking reflects the homely, airy setting.

The sublime four-course meal fused Moroccan and Spanish with other international elements. My partner's dairy-free vegetarian dishes included cauliflower couscous, guacamole and mango salad while I had a soft, exquisite denton with sprinkles of caramel sauce, a salsa within layers of goat's cheese and Mediterranean salad with seafood, parma ham, wisps of crisp leek and mango, again. Almond cake and rosemary ice cream end this magnificent feast.

Oops, nearly forgot. What about tapas?

On our final morning we lunched at Piripe's, perhaps Alicante's top restaurant and chicest tapas bar in the city's business district. At this rather more traditional haunt, I sampled a classic rice dish at last, arroz a banda.

Carlos introduced us to the dapper chef, Juan Jose, who looks impossibly unsmudged in his spotless, stainless steel kitchen. Jose explained how this rice and seafood dish used to be cooked in two stages, the rice earlier on dry land and the fish over a brazier in the boats. It's put together and consumed all in one now, and how delicious the result. The grain must absorb the flavours like a sponge and my partner's arroz verdurai certainly did that, a canopy of crunchy vegetables alongside the al dente arroz. Finally came the sweets selection – including three sorts of turron and various milky delights.

Meanwhile, the tapas bar downstairs was in full swing, the scent of prawns and chorizo hanging appetisingly in the air. Piripe seemed to have got the balance right: in the city of light it was blending the old with the new, reaching new standards in fresh cuisine by infusing each dish with Spanish spirit, Moorish dash and Mediterranean taste.

How can I get there

I travelled to Alicante with Go (0870 607 6543; from Stansted, which offers return flights from £95, including taxes. The lowest fares are available on the internet site. Suites overlooking the beach at the large and centrally positioned Melia Alicante Hotel, Plaza Puerta de Mar (00 34 96 520 50 00) start from Pts15,200 (£55) including buffet breakfast. A four-course meal at Tragallum, Calle Campos Vasalos 33 (00 34 96 521 38 69) costs around Pts5000 per person. Arroza banda at Piripe, Avenida de Oscar Espla 30 (00 34 96 522 79 40) costs Pts1,500 per person.

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