It is a beautiful sunny day with a slight breeze coming off of the Mediterranean. We are riding rental bikes through the Valencia city gardens, heading out of town on the bike path that goes out to the outlying beaches but also to the low lying fields where rice is grown.
To the south of Valencia, Spain, the flooded plain is a protected natural area that is home to many birds. As we pedal along following the highway on our own dedicated bike path, we pass the port and we leave the city behind. We feel the coastal air on our faces as the trail turns toward the sea and follows the sandy coastline. Palm trees, cactuses and piney shrubs line the way. We have all day to use the bikes so we stop every now and then to take in the views, take a drink from our water bottle and rest our seats.
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Out here, where the rice is grown and harvested, is the original home of paella — a typically Spanish dish made with rice and saffron and cooked over an open fire. Our plan is to find La Matandeta, a restaurant in the midst that serves a very traditional paella. Plans don’t always work out, so we find ourselves out in the country with a flat tire and no way to fix it.
It is lunch time here and everything closes down during the warmest time of day. Most everyone takes their lunch between 2 and 4 p.m., before going back to work. Right as we discover the flat, a man walking by takes an immediate interest in us and suggests where we might go for help. We walk along, pushing our bikes in the hot sun, but everything seems closed. Our guardian angel tells me there is a bike rental place in the next town.
“They are closed right now, of course. It’s lunchtime. But the owners live right upstairs. Just ring the bell and they will come and help you when they see your problem. You came here to see our country. We need to help you.”
We arrive in the small village and, sure enough, the shop is closed until 4:30 p.m. I ring the bell several times. A young man tells me we should have a drink at the place next door because it is the middle of lunch. But he will be out in 10 minutes and will get us on our way. True to his word, he arrives and fixes the flat promptly for a very little sum. And he does not accept the tip I offer.
“You came here to see our country. We need to help you.”
We get to the restaurant just in time for a 3 p.m. lunch and we sit out on the patio with the view of the rice fields before us. We are the last lunch customers and are treated to our own wood cooked paella, with the deep smoked flavors permeating the rice. Later, as we leave on our bikes, we also smell the smoke of the rice stalks burning out in the field. Reluctantly, we call it a day and bike back to Valencia just as the sun is setting on the rice fields.
Here is a dish we made that would go well with rice, though we ate it with fava beans and potatoes.
Merluza with saffron orange sauce
- 4 hake (or haddock or cod) fillets, sprinkled with coarse salt
- 4 tbsp. of olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tbsp. of capers
- ¼ cup parsley, finely chopped
- 2 mild dried smoked chili peppers, chopped
- 1 big pinch of saffron threads
- ¼ cup coarse bread crumbs
- Juice of 2 Valencia oranges
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Heat the oil in a large frying pan and lightly brown the fish on both sides.
- Remove from the pan and place on a plate. Add the garlic to the oil and fry briefly. When golden, stir in the capers, parsley and chopped dried chili peppers. Spread this mixture over the fish. Add the bread crumbs to the orange and lemon juice, stir in the saffron, and start cooking in the frying pan.
- Transfer the fish back into the orange mixture and cook on a low heat on top of the stove for 10 minutes or until fish flakes and juices start to thicken. Serve straight from the dish.