What would you like to cook?
Discovering the culinary delights of Valencia with Ivo Adam
Ivo Adam explains how he finds culinary inspiration while on his travels. In the Mediterranean city of Valencia, he tries horchata (tiger nut milk), discovers loquats, combines them with turrón de casinos and tries his hand as a paella chef at a rice festival. Food scouting in four steps – give it a go!
With an inquisitive nose and an attentive eye, Ivo walks through one of Europe's most beautiful market halls – the Mercado Central in Valencia's Old Town. He stops at every other stall and converses with the stallholders in an unconventional mix of Spanish, Italian and English:
"What is it? Where does it come from? How do you cook it?" An hour or so later and he's already acquired a dozen carrier bags and had three breakfasts. "I'm actually here on a short break with my family but I'm making the most of every opportunity to explore the local cuisine", says Ivo.
But how exactly does a pro explore?
A guide to food scouting in four steps:
The first step involves exploring the region's culinary traditions. It makes sense to begin with the raw products. "You need look no further than your nearest touristy restaurant for cooked, ready-prepared traditional food" says Ivo without a hint of irony, adding that you can trust a restaurant menu because "good dishes often prove popular". If you have more time, you can enquire about the lesser known traditions and cooking methods while visiting a top restaurant or talking to gastro-connoisseurs.
In one of Ivo's carrier bags are tiger nuts used to make horchata. This drink is unique to Valencia and is enjoyed with long, fluffy iced buns known as fartons. Another bag contains artichokes which are very popular in the Valencian Community during the mild winter and spring months. He has also bought mojama (salt-cured tuna loin), buñuelos (the big brother of the deep-fried churro), cava, ham, turrón de casinos, Bomba rice and gambas rojas de Denia (red Denia prawns).
Ivo has already consumed at least half a litre of freshly squeezed orange juice (Valencia is something of a global leader in citrus fruit), several tostada de tomate ("True, you can get this anywhere in Spain, but it really is the best breakfast in the world!"), a selection of the finest Bellota ham and yesterday, he had his first paella of the trip. But more about that later.
In food scouting "new" doesn't necessarily mean innovation but rather something unique – from the observer's perspective. Ivo tried chufas for the first time in Valencia. These tiger nuts are grown just outside the city and used as the basis for the popular horchata drink. These dried tubers from the sedge family taste like a cross between sweet corn and fresh, green almonds.
Loquats, or nisperos, are not an entirely new thing for Ivo. "I know I've tried them before but I don't remember them", says Ivo somewhat vexed. He finds it hard to believe that a single fruit can make up half a fruit salad.
He taste-tests his purchases in the kitchen of his rented apartment in the Ruzafa district. This is when you know you're dealing with a professional. Ivo combines what is in front of him quickly and simply. He rips open a bag, breaks off a piece, dunks it in olive oil, grabs something sweet, fetches the vinegar, dunks it. He crumbles the turrón de casino over half a loquat and places a piece of Bellota ham on top. "Sweet, sour, fatty, salty with a nutty yet refreshing flavour – the turrón can be made into a kind of snow". In an instant, Ivo turns his food scouting into food pairing and creates a series of new dishes in his head at the kitchen table – without any cooking. Discovering new things also means combining the familiar with the unfamiliar.
The third step to food scouting involves delving further into a typical dish and automatically discovering new things. Here you can explore the individual components of a dish and the way it is made. Ivo has chosen the region's undisputed favourite, paella. Paella Valenciana introduced him to the rice fields of Albufera on the outskirts of the city of Valencia. He also found out about the different types of beans which are grown in the Valencian Community and the saffron used to colour the rice dish. Narrowing your focus to one specific dish actually serves to broaden your horizons and leads you in many different directions.
Paella originates from Valencia, where it is omnipresent. When you ask around, you soon become aware of how important the dish is to the identity of the Valencian people. "Rice is a religion: you mustn't eat paella on your own, you should only order it in the afternoon, it must not be stirred during cooking, and it's a cardinal sin not to have a crispy soccarat," grins Ivo Adam.
Valencia is home to just under a million people – and a million paella aficionados. After half a dozen books, five taxi drivers and ten random conversations along the beach and in bars, Ivo is left in no doubt that the original paella is made with chicken and rabbit. Adding seafood and fish to the dish is frowned upon and known as "tourist paella".
The vegetables used are grated tomatoes, flat green beans (ferraura), white beans (garrofon, tavella) as well as artichokes in winter. The rice (usually Bomba) is coloured with saffron, at least in theory. In reality, many use turmeric-based food colouring. Sometimes – especially inland – snails are added.
"Food scouting is a fantastic way to travel in your spare time – it's a bit like being a travel guide. But for me, scouting also serves a purpose", says Ivo. For the reopening of the Casino in Berne, he's on the lookout for culinary inspiration and interesting raw products for the various restaurant areas. "Social food will play a key role in one area of the restaurant", he explains. He's referring here to the tavolata concept where all the dishes are placed on the table at once rather than course by course. People just help themselves to whatever they fancy. "This is not too dissimilar to the Spanish concept of tapas. Or paella, which sits in the centre of the table so that everyone can serve themselves".
The original Paella Valenciana lends itself perfectly to Swiss culture – farm-reared chicken and rabbit, tomatoes from the garden, Seeland beans and artichokes, and Mund saffron. There's no need for expensive seafood or fish. Only the Bomba rice needs to be imported from Valencia. "Unfortunately, the risotto rice from Ticino just doesn't work", confirms Ivo. For him, the greatest potential lies in the characteristic roasted flavour of the paella. As he muses over brown rice patties, cold paella puree and pulled paella chicken on Bomba sushi, we witness a creative top chef in his element.
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