I’ve mentioned on the blog before that whenever I go to Spain, I’m always impressed with the food, so I had high hopes on my recent trip to Castellón with the Bristol Bloggers group. Luckily, I wasn’t disappointed – the food I sampled there was as fresh, high quality and delicious as it was on my visits to other regions. It’s definitely the perfect place for food lovers to visit.
Fresh seafood in Peñiscola
Shall we start with the seafood? I know I say this every time I write about food in Spain, but it really is one of the very few countries where I’ll actually happily eat fish – and even dip my toes into the world of seafood. Everything is just so fresh that it’s an entirely different experience from eating it back at home.
In Peñiscola, they hold a fresh fish auction a few times a week where the latest catch is sold fresh from the boats. Thanks to this it can end up on your plate just hours after it has been caught.
We had a full-on seafood feast at Peñiscola’s Puerto Mar, a cosy restaurant with a nautical feel that sits right on the harbourside. They have an extensive seafood menu with everything from prawns and mullet to fried squid and sea snails. Some of the seafood was not to my taste but I enjoyed the prawns and the white fish, and I did try out the calamari, which was a world away from any that I’ve tried anywhere else. There was not even a hint of the rubberiness that I usually associate with it. (But then, I’ve only ever really eaten it in the pub, by accident, thinking it was onion rings – probably not the best example to compare it to).
Preparing traditional paella
One of the main food highlights of the trip was a visit to Mas dels Doblons, just outside of the region’s capital, Castellón de la Plana. Here we got an insight into some of the traditional agricultural practices and dishes of the area. In particular we learnt about, and helped prepare, a traditional paella. The first stop in this process was a visit to Castellón’s large central market to see where ingredients for the dish are bought. Here, all of the area’s freshest fish, meat and vegetables are piled high. It’s a wonderful place to explore for an hour or two.
We were making a traditional version of paella which, surprisingly, doesn’t actually contain fish. The dish was originally created by farmers to use up leftovers so it contained only meat and vegetables. It was only when the dish travelled down to the coast that seafood was added, making it more recognisable to us today.
Our paella was cooked outdoors over an open flame. Wood smoke, preferably from orange tree wood, is best for cooking paella as it improves the taste of the dish. Once the fire was ready, into our massive paella pan went two pieces of chicken, two pieces of rabbit and one pork rib per person. They were quickly cooked over a high heat to make them nice and crispy. Once the meat was seared, green beans and red peppers were added, then tomatoes for taste and colour, followed by artichokes and white beans. Saffron gives the rice its distinctive yellow colour. After simmering this mixture in water for 20 minutes, the rice (historically grown in Spanish marshes) goes in and is cooked and the dish left to stand a little to dry out before serving.
Our paella was cooked on a bit of an industrial scale but when it’s cooked at a household level, the occasion is an extremely social one, much like a barbecue. Generally the men take charge of cooking the paella itself, and there’s lots of wine, nibbles and chat to keep everyone going until the main event. Mas dels Doblons didn’t skimp on the nibbles, introducing us to lots of little appetisers showcasing the best of the region. I honestly lost count of how many we were served but they included things such as Spanish omelette, goats cheese and honey balls, oxtail, a milky cucumber drink, flavoured salts served on crispbreads, sangria and more – and they were all delicious. This was before the three course sit-down meal itself so it’s fair to say we were all stuffed by the end of our visit.
As well as cooking traditional paella at Mas del Doblons, the owner Alejandro gave us a tour of his citrus orchards. The family-run farm has two hectares of orchards and each tree is cared for individually. How they grow the trees is really quite interesting. First, no matter what they want to grow, a bitter-variety citrus tree is planted first as they have strong stems. Then, once these have grown enough, the variety of fruit they actually want to harvest is manually grafted onto the original tree. The trees then start producing this new variety meaning you can have multiple varieties of orange, and even also lemon or lime, growing from the same tree.
Once the oranges are harvested, they are sorted using the farm’s sorting machine to be sold or to be used to produce a variety of citrus treats including marmalade, liqueur and, of course, freshly sqeezed orange juice. Perfect for a hot sunny afternoon.
As well as citrus, the other thing that the climate in Castellón is well suited to is olives. The fields alongside the areas roads are lined with olive groves full of beautiful gnarled trees, some of which are hundreds of years old and still producing olives. Mas dels Doblons have a traditional olive press which is used to make fresh olive oil.
Artisan food in Morella
One of the other main food highlights of the trip was the mountain town of Morella. The streets were packed with shops selling an array of artisan products from the surrounding area – providing a much-needed source of income for local farmers, a lot of whom are struggling to compete with cheap imports from other countries. Morella is also renowned for being a truffle-rich area and holds a truffle market every Friday night during the main truffle season of November to February.
Guimerà sells a wide range of local products, including honey, meats, cheeses, preserves and chocolate. We were travelling hand-luggage only so I had to keep myself somewhat under control, but a bar of Guimerà’s own chocolate did come back to the UK with me (delicious, of course!). There were also stores that focused on one particular product such as the La Casa Del Formatge (The House of Cheeses – my kind of place!). Plenty to explore before settling down for a drink of local artisanal vermouth in one of the local bars.
One of Morella’s specialities is a sweet pastry called a flaon. Much as I love the savoury food that Spain has to offer, I’m not actually a huge fan of their desserts. They’re alright, it’s just not very often that I come across anything fantastic (and on this trip, one or two of them were just downright strange). However, I did really enjoy my flaon, which Heather picked up for all of us from a local bakery. Traditionally baked at Easter but now available all year round, this crescent-shaped pastry is packed with soft cheese and almonds and coated in sugar and would be a great breakfast treat or post-dinner pick me up.
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I was a guest of Turismo de Castellón for this trip but all opinions are my own.