A recent exchange of mails with an old friend, a food writer who lives in Madrid, got me thinking about my Kitchen Must-Have No 2. We were talking about food in and around Valencia – a city Vicky visits regularly and a place I’ve known since my sister moved there in the 70s.
I’ve always liked the Mercado Central in Valencia, prefering it to the much more praised Mercado Boqueria in Barcelona. Valencia lays claim to its market being the oldest in Spain and owes its being to the Moors who occupied the country for over 700 years - El Cid’s fame is Valencia legend. Without the Moorish occupation we’d have so little today of what we term Spanish cuisine – rice, citrus, almonds, saffron, spices, irrigation, terracing and more. Those same maginificent terraces, all engineered by hand, are still in use.
Today’s building is an architectural heritage dating back to just the 19th century. Every possible food is sold noisily through the Mercado Central six mornings a week – now will be the time for the tiniest artichokes which are thin sliced and quickly seared a la plancha. It’s renowned for the lady vendors who traditionally always wore starched white lace blouses and full maquillage. Many of the market’s butchers are women wielding their fearsome half-rounded cleavers – butchery in Spain is not a craft, it’s as brutal as the corrida.
Underneath the market building are tiny cookware shops – you peer down to inspect what’s on offer and at what price - there are Valencia’s green handled, dimple bottomed paella’s, in all sizes from a saucer to a tractor wheel. There’s also another Valenciana speciality, the cassola – known elsewhere in the Spanish speaking world as the cazuela. These terracotta dishes are remarkable and I’ll explain why.
The traditional cassolais glazed only on the inside and needs careful seasoning. You must soak them in cold water for 24 hours and then re-fire them in a warm oven, filled with water, for a further 3-4 hours or longer. If you’re lucky, your new pot will serve you for years. Unlucky and it’ll split clean in two on first using.
A good one can be used over naked flame to fry anything from sofrito to eggs – but never on electric rings. I use mine always in the oven after too many experiences of a new one breaking apart complete with hot olive oil and half cooked contents.
I wrote before that Valenciana’s talk of ‘Un Arroz’- a rice – never a paella which is no more than the pan in which the dish is cooked. Likewise the cassola which hosts one of the city’s finest ‘rices’ – the Arroz al Horno meaning nothing more imaginative than ‘Rice in the Oven’. But what a fine dish it is.
This is a slow cooked rice traditionally made with morcilla (black pudding), whole garlic heads, potato, tomato, onion, pimenton and, on special occasions, saffron with whole quail or partridge set into the rice. The dish can cook slowly in a moderate oven for several hours – and like all the best dishes, it tastes best when served cool rather than baking hot, with no more seasoning than a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Valenciana cooking uses pretty well what you have to hand, but there are some rules – never commit the faux-pas of cooking chicken withshell fish in a paella, like just about every recipe written by a non-local will include. Chicken, rabbit or pork goes with white beans and snails – shellfish goes with tomatoes and garlic. Pimenton goes with both. Avoid restaurants that suggest otherwise.
So Must-Have No 2 – the cazuela or cassola. The terracotta imparts a quite different finish to roast meats and poultry, it being a less fierce heat to a roasting tin or frying pan.
They are sold around the world – always make certain the one you buy is for all use cooking, and not just an ethnic salad bowl. The sellers tend not to tell you either way – beware.