Having procured tiger nuts and pork belly for me with strict instructions on how to prepare both once I was home, De La Cruz took me to Llisa Negra (llisanegra.com), another of Dacosta’s restaurants, and showed me how to cook the sacred paella – three of them, in fact – over an open fire, telling me: “No two paellas are alike; you are dancing with the flame!” (I decided I couldn’t dance with it for too long, for fear of losing body hair.) As we sat down to our over-generous meals, Dacosta himself breezed in, on his way to Seville. His verdict on my efforts? “More salt; too dry; not enough socarrat [the all-important crust to be found at the base of every authentic paella].” After assisting us with a goat’s-cheesecake, he was gone almost as soon as he arrived.
That night I was taken on a spectacular culinary journey around the Valencian province via the tasting menu at Dacosta’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant El Poblet (elpobletrestaurante.com), but the next morning it was time to get out into the region for real.
The coastal town of Cullera is a summer hotspot for Britons and Germans seeking sunshine. On that “chilly” winter’s day, I stood outside the mountain-top castle, originally a Moorish fortress, as my guide pointed out boundless orange groves to one side and recently harvested rice fields to the other, the seafront high-rises fading into the picturesque charm of the old town.
Wherever I drove in the region, the notions of locality and sustainability were to the fore. Valencia is festooned in produce, from the paddy fields of Albufera Natural Park, via the fisheries of Gandia and tiger nuts of Horta Nord.
Even in lesser-known areas, chefs put their own twist on local produce, as in the pretty seaside town of Gandia, a 50-minute drive south from Valencia city. In his Street Food restaurant (streetfoodgandia.com), local boy Chema Soler fuses Mexican and Asian flavours with his Mediterranean roots to great success, as with his scallops with Iberian jowls au gratin and kimchi. When it comes to maintaining food traditions, Valencians do not seem as militant as, say, Sicilians: so long as ingredients are fresh and local, evolution is part of the fun.