Valencia and the land surrounding this coastal city are steeped in history, the fight for sustenance, and the passions of people who have long fought for scarce resources. The leafy orange trees seen all around town belie the area’s fraught relationship with water. The river that runs through town is dry, but still the people cherish it for what it has given them, and have turned it into something to be celebrated. It’s this flair for bringing out the best in what they have at their disposal that stands at the heart of two remarkably thirst quenching drinks found around Valencia.
Agua de Valencia
Walking through the narrow streets of Valencia’s ‘Old Town’, the air is often close and hot, and the site of lush green orange trees creates a fever for something cold and, as the day wears on, well, not kid-friendly. Fortunately, Agua de Valencia, the city’s namesake cocktail offers the perfect blend of local orange juice, cava, and a splash of this n’ that. Cool, refreshing, and gently spiked, you could be forgiven for thinking that Agua de Valencia is simply a Valencian mimosa.
It’s actually much more than that. Local bartenders will tell you most of their recipe (fresh Valencia oranges and semi-dry cava, plus a combination of a few clear liquors and citrus liqueurs. And at Cafe de las Horas (a combination of Paris coffee house, English tea room, and American cocktail bar) that’s considered to be the place to go for Agua de Valencia, they’ll also tell you a bit of the local lore and legend surrounding the drink.
Sitting in the bordello-like atmosphere of Cafe de las Horas I was told that some time during the 1960s, in Valencia’s Cafe Madrid, a group of travelers regularly asked for and received Agua de Bilbao (cava). One day they challenged their bartender to give them something new. He told them they should try Agua de Valencia, which he invented on the spot, and they drank it thereafter. Though it took more than a decade for it to become popular throughout the city, it’s now a classic on drinks menus around Valencia. And, although its genesis may have been somewhat spurious, Aqua de Valencia is a drink that reflects the importance of water and locally grown products in Valencia’s history and culture.
In a city where agriculture, orange trees, and rice production are key ingredients in the history, culture and economy of the entire region, water rights and access are major issues. So much so that they are ritually discussed at the weekly water court (held on Thursdays at noon in front of the cathedral’s Door of the Apostles in the Plaza de la Virgen). You see, Agua de Valencia (Water of Valencia) is not only a delightfully pleasant libation, but it’s also a statement that speaks to Valencia’s gentle good nature (even in the face of conflict), and pays homage to one of it’s greatest gifts and most prized resources.
Going to Valencia, Spain I knew there would be horchata. I looked forward to it with the fever of a junky. From my years in Los Angeles I harbor a secret (or not so secret) passion for horchata, the sweet milky (but lactose free) non-alcoholic drink made from rice (in Mexico), that, when laced with just a touch of cinnamon, is equal parts refreshing and soul soothingly sweet. But my first taste of horchata in Valencia filled me with conflicting emotions. It was good and cool, but it had a richer, not quite bitter, full flavor. It was still sweet, but, where the rice-based Mexican horchata is mostly just sweet, Valencian horchata has layers of flavor that are a bit more complex and somehow more, “adult”. For food-curious travelers, Spanish horchata is oddly intriguing, satisfying, and refreshing all at once.
As opposed to Mexican horchata (made from rice), in Valencia, where rice is a valuable export, Spanish horchata is made from the local tiger nut (also called chufa), a pea-sized brown nut that is dry and a touch bitter, but when ground and mixed with sugar and cinnamon creates a deliciously complex and refreshing drink.
Because horchata is so popular in the central tourist parts of Valencia, you can find little sacks of chufa nuts for sale in the Central Market and at some horchaterias. Many of these local shops will add their own secret ingredients to the mix, giving their ‘house’ horchata mix a little extra something. So it’s worth trying a glass at several places around town.
And if you really want to gild the Valencian lily, stop in at Horchateria de Santa Catalina, Valencia’s most celebrated horchateria, and have your bunuelos y churros (or your pick of a host of other pastries and local delicacies) at the same time. This historic, well-regarded, and beautifully tiled (which means it’s cool inside) horchateria and fried dough emporium has a delightfully old school feel to it, and is conveniently located near the cathedral and not far from the Central Market, making it a great place to treat yourself between attractions. And the fact their horchata is excellent, the bunuelos fresh, and the tiger nuts clearly on display means you can satisfy a number of your culinary cravings and curiosities all at once.
So, whether you are looking for an adult beverage or something a bit sweeter Valencia is equal to the challenge. Both Agua de Valencia and Spanish horchata will slake your thirst, but they also reflect the culture of a town steeped in tradition and history. So, when in Valencia, embrace the local with a glass of horchata or Aqua de Valencia, sit back, and fondly recall their past, and yours.
Plaza Santa Catalina 6
96 391 23 79
Cafe de las Horas
Calle del Conde de Almodóvar, 1
96 391 73 36
The author/editor is indebted to others for the content in this article. While the final product on this page is ours, and we claim full ownership and responsibility for same, what you read here is based on our research, which led us to the following sources of information:
Personal Interviews and experiences