Almuerzo and the super-sandwiches of Valencia
Jill Petzinger/ BBC:
It is 11:00 on a Tuesday at Bodega Casa Flor, a 130-year-old restaurant in the Cabanyal neighbourhood of Valencia City, Spain, and noise levels have reached a peak. Waiters zip around bearing huge paper-wrapped sandwiches to tables strewn with peanuts and sipped beers. It’s a scene that plays out daily in cafes and bars across the province of Valencia, as people take a break for this uniquely Valencian ritual.
Considered a late breakfast or an early lunch (actual lunch starts around 14:30), the almuerzo in Castilian Spanish (esmorzaret in Valencian) happens between 09:00 and 11:30 on Mondays through Saturdays and always features a massive sandwich.
Spanish chef and humanitarian José Andrés described eating an almuerzo as “like a religious experience, only with food” on his TV show José Andrés & Family in Spain. Almuerzo is arguably as sacred to Valencians as paella and has been central to the work and social life of the region for centuries.
“It is always said that almuerzo is the best meal of the whole day here,” said Inmaculada Flor, who grew up in the family restaurant and now runs it with her sister Mercedes. “It’s when you sit down and have a chat, it’s a time for talking, fun, and having a sandwich – that’s what you enjoy the most.”
The sandwich is always the star. Unlike the traditional thin bocadillo sandwich with ham and/or cheese common across Spain, these Valencian bruisers can be half a metre long. The choice of fillings includes horse meat, pork loin, bacon, sausage, fried eggs, deep-fried calamari, potato tortilla and all sorts of freshly cooked vegetables.
As in many places in Valencia, there is no sandwich menu at Casa Flor. “I will make you whatever mixture you want, you just tell me,” Flor said, reeling off a list of ingredients from broad beans and cuttlefish to stewed peppers and blood sausages. A must-try is the sandwich filled with a juicy, sweet stew of mushrooms, raisins, potato fries, a fried egg and an optional sausage.
The almuerzo format is simple: small bowls of peanuts, olives and pickles awaken the appetite for an over-stuffed sandwich in crusty white country bread, washed down with a beer, or red wine mixed with a lemony soda called gaseosa. The finale is a small coffee infused with herbed, sweetened rum, called cremaet. This all generally costs between €6 and €8.
Certain classics are ubiquitous. El chivito, for example, is a luscious layering of pork loin, bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese, mayonnaise and runny fried egg that is believed to have originated in the 1940s in Uruguay but has been adopted and adapted by Valencians.
Then there is the beloved blanco y negro, stuffed with white longaniza pork sausage and dark blood sausage on a bed of sautéed broad beans. Sandwiches filled with a simple potato tortilla or tuna mixed with olives provide lighter options.
“It’s our favourite meal of the day, the moment when you can gather with friends or with family and be yourself,” said Vicent Marco, a Valencian author, journalist and screenwriter. “Here in Valencia, we have this festive thing, we like to get together.”
The beauty of almuerzo is that everyone is equal and welcome and there’s no protocol or need for tablecloths and napkins, he explained. The only thing is: “It can never ever be called brunch!”
Marco’s recent book, Almuerzos valencianos, published in 2022, is an exploration of the history of almuerzo in the region and the best places to enjoy it in Valencia today. A lover of food since working in his uncles’ restaurant at age 16, Marco dove into the research by eating almuerzo every day in scores of bars and cafes and collecting their stories. He looked to history professor and official chronicler of the city of Valencia, Vicent Baydal, to write the history section of the book.
According to Baydal, almuerzo as a rural mid-morning meal was mentioned in texts as far back as the end of the Middle Ages. It was commonly eaten by farmers, who rose at dawn and ate a few hours later, sharing locally produced meats and vegetables.
Baydal wrote that mentions of almuerzo in its current form (sandwich, nuts, olives and cremaet) eaten in a bar, cafe or restaurant appear consistently in texts since the first half of the 19th Century, with the advent of the industrial age. This was when workers in factories and offices started breaking for this big, mid-morning meal together.
Famed Valencian author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez mentions workers from the outskirts of town pouring into the city with their almuerzo sacks in his novel La Barraca (The Shack) in 1898. Even today, you’ll find the occasional company with a sign on the door saying it is shut for almuerzo, Marco said.
“The gastronomy here in the end is about proximity,” said Marco. The best almuerzo cooks still get their ingredients from the multitude of small farms and market gardens that surround the city and dot the province.
Passion for local produce is at the heart of the kitchen at La Cantina de Ruzafa in the trendy Ruzafa neighbourhood of Valencia, where Eva Davó and Jaume Vilà opened their cafe-restaurant with its lush vegetable garden five years ago. “We wanted to make Valencian cuisine, [we were] trying to find old recipes and trying to promote the local farmers and we decided we were going to focus on almuerzo, because it is as traditional as paella,” said Davó, herself a Valencian.
The sandwiches at La Cantina are served in pataquetas, crescent-shaped breads created from an ancient recipe, and are the perfect texture to hold ambitious amounts of fillings and soak up the juices at the same time.
“We like to work with what’s available and don’t like wasting food,” Davó said. Two of their most popular sandwiches are the figatell (a type of ancient Valencian burger of pig parts) with seasonal vegetables, and the jabalí (stewed wild boar with vegetables and fried eggs). Fillings change with the seasons, and there are always vegan or meat-free options.