Since the beginning of the 19th century Valencia has been a major grower and trader of oranges largely down to the fact that the long daylight hours of brilliant sunshine combined with mild winter temperatures produce the perfect balance of sweet and tart flavours. Oranges were originally introduced to the city by the Moors in the 10th century principally as ornamental plants to adorn the secluded courtyard gardens of their palaces and mosques where the merest scent of orange blossom afforded them a sense of home. At this time of year, no matter where I am in the world, I crave their citrusy brightness, succulent flesh and brightly coloured juice. But in early spring, the beginning of the Valencia orange season, a chilly early morning walk through the city’s stunning Art Nouveau ‘Mercado Central’ – one of the largest in Europe and, in my view, even more exciting than the infamous ‘La Boqueria Market’ in Barcelona – the humble tables piled high with the fruit still bearing their emerald resin-scented leaves delivers an olfactory sensation of such brilliance that one almost feels uplifted to the skies and a sense of oneness with their exotic beginnings. At that same market, it’s possible to pick up boxes of another Valencian classic, paella. Now I can’t describe my interpretation of this family Sunday lunch dish as an actual paella because it contains neither meat nor seafood but, it all other details, it’s as authentic as it gets. We love it for its bright citrusy flavours and the soft undertone of a slow-cooked Spanish sofrito featuring carne de ñora, a sweet-fleshed dried pepper paste for paella and fideuà (the ñora pepper is also the basis of paprika which is also celebrated in this recipe).
250g bomba rice
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed
A couple of handfuls of frozen peas
1 jar flame roasted red and yellow peppers, drained
1 jar of Spanish organic white haricot beans, drained and rinsed
A handful of char-grilled marinated artichokes
500ml vegetable stock
2 generous pinches of Spanish saffron
Spanish extra-virgin olive oil
2 banana shallots, finely chopped
3 fat garlic cloves, grated
1 ripe tomato, diced
2 tsp carne de ñora paste
1 tsp hot smoked paprika
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
1 Valencian orange, juiced
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground mixed peppercorns
2 lemons, one juiced and one sliced
Flat leaf parsley, to serve
How I make it
Place the stock into a small saucepan and add the saffron. Place over a medium heat and gently bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Place the asparagus and the peas into a shallow dish and cover with freshly boiled water. Set aside for at least half an hour to allow the asparagus to gently cook through.
Cut the roasted peppers into thin strips.
Place a large frying pan over a medium heat and add a generous glug of olive oil. Add the shallots and fry them until they are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and stir around for a couple of minutes.Then add half of the peppers, the tomato, the carne de ñora paste and the paprika. Turn down the heat and cook down to a paste-like consistency. The result is a Spanish sofrito, the basis of all great paella dishes. Season to your taste.
Add the rice to the pan and stir it around until it starts to become transparent. Add the stock and the orange juice. Turn the heat right down, cover and leave to gently simmer – without stirring – for around 20 minutes until the rice is soft and cooked through.
Add the beans and the peas to the rice, gently stir through and arrange the asparagus and the artichoke hearts over the top. Pour over the juice of one of the lemons and decorate with the lemon slices and the parsley.
Serve immediately with a classic tomato salad and hunks of freshly baked bread.