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The Fires (Las Fallas) and Paella of Valencia, Spain

Valencia is the third largest city in Spain, and it is resplendent with amazing architecture, a profound sense of history and beautiful beaches. Many know that this vibrant and cosmopolitan city is home to the European Formula One Grand Prix, and it is also a popular destination for those attending La Tomatina, a much publicized annual tomato fight held in a nearby town. Valencia is, however, also home to Spain’s national dish Paella, and Las Fallas (The Falles) festival which runs from March 15th – March 19th every year.

Las Fallas

Las Fallas is an ancient and traditional celebration that commemorates Saint Joseph. Preparation for these festivities begins a year in advance with fundraising and construction of the props that will be used during the celebration. Puppets or dolls are constructed, and following a parade they are mounted on elaborate constructions made of paper-mâché and cardboard which is called a falla.

The preparation for this event is so intense and elaborate that an entire area of the city has been designated as the City of Falles, where artisans of every kind spend months building the props. The celebration itself will see more than 500 different celebratory falla.

There are a variety of events which occur during this important celebration, including brass bands that march through neighborhood streets, people parading in costume, and plenty of firecrackers. The five days and nights of the actual traditional celebration are a time of continuous partying by people of all ages. Of course, food and drinks are an integral part of any holiday, and there is plenty of sangria, paella and other local dishes available during the festivities.

Paella

Whether you believe that paella is the Spanish national dish or just a regional one, there is no doubt that paella is recognized the world over as being distinctly Spanish. The modern incarnation of this rice dish evolved on the east coast of Spain in the middle of the 19th century. It has, however, ancient roots; the Moors used to make casseroles of rice and fish, and by the 15th century rice was a staple ingredient in most homes. By the 18th century, Valencians used special pans to cook rice dishes for special occasions, and by the end of the 19th century the region was facing increased prosperity and paella’s ingredients changed to include more expensive proteins such as duck, chicken and rabbit. In 1840, a local newspaper referred to this distinctive dish as paella, and this fantastic rice dish with a very specific cooking technique has never been called anything else.

There are three main kinds of paella: Valencian paella (rabbit, chicken, white bean), seafood paella and mixed paella.  The base of the dish is always sofrito (garlic, onion,tomato) The core ingredients include rice, vegetables and some form of protein. Saffron and olive oil are also common – the saffron is what gives the rice its golden yellow color and floral aroma.

A specific cooking technique is required before the dish can be called paella. It involves a layering of flavors and ingredients in a paella pan, which is a large, round and shallow dish. The rice and other ingredients are not disturbed during the final cooking process which allows the bottom layer to caramelize and build an intense flavor.  For something quick, local, and cheap you can get an empanada. The savory pastries are hand-made and filled with meat or vegetables.  The local favorite contains tuna, tomato, and peppers.  Don’t forget to visit the Mercado Central de Valencia, it’s a must stop for culinary travellers looking for local and regional food specialties, such as the famous ham/cured meat called jamon iberico.

The perfect beverage to accompany any paella is sangria or Agua de Valencia.  Sangria is a fruity drink mixture of wine, fresh sliced fruit, a dash of sweetener and brandy.  Agua de Valencia contains orange juice, cava, gin and vodka. Both are flavorful and refreshing, these common drinks are available throughout the country and especially at the time of The Fallas celebration where just about every restaurant offers paella and every bar serves up pitchers of chilled sangria and Agua de Valencia.

Spain is a country of diverse regions, each with their own cultural flavor. Valencia, home of paella and one of the most spectacular festivals in the world, it is a beautiful area that should not be missed if traveling to Spain.  Las Fallas happens every year from March 15th-March 19th, but there are many events and parades leading up to the main event.  It’s a great time of year to visit Spain because of the mild weather, and lack of tourists compared to a summer visit.