I’m sat on the ground, leaning against the wall of the Ermita de Nuestra Sra. de los Desemparados, Our Lady of the Forsaken, in the Partida de Fiscal in the huerto, the acres of market garden that surround Valencia, within a stone’s throw of the City of Arts and Sciences. Next to me, the partida, a piece of agricultural land, is called the Partida Romance, and I can’t help thinking in a sardonic sort of way that between the three of them, Fiscal, Romance and Forsaken, they seem to pretty well sum up my life at the moment.
The day is slightly cloudy, but warm, with patches of pale sunlight appearing in the gaps in the clouds. God seems to be smiling on me because as the clouds drift by they seem to break and divert, leaving me in a little patch of almost continuous sunshine. Off in the distance I can hear the susurration of the traffic on the motorway between Valencia and the beach at El Saler, as it passes the rice paddies of the Albufera, birthplace of Valencia’s – and probably Spain’s – iconic dish, the paella. But the noise isn’t loud enough to cover the twittering of a few birds or the skittering of dried leaves across the tarmac in front of the Ermita when the occasional light breeze wafts by.
Valencia prides itself of being Spain’s third city, although on the quiet many of its residents will tell you that in reality it’s not much more than a big town. Everything’s compact and within walking distance if you are reasonably fit. Nowhere is this more noticeable than if you talk a walk into the huerto.
From where I sit I look over the top of fields of artichoke, cabbages and spinach to the City of Arts and Sciences and the chi-chi new apartments on Avenida Francia, where many of the city’s ‘new money’ have made their home. On my ride through the tiny narrow roads that cut through the market gardens I passed patches of ground newly turned, with a heron pecking the ground as it follows a tractor cutting the furrows for the next seasonal crop, most of which will end up in the Central Market and the neighbourhood markets scattered throughout the city.
Parsley and spring onions are showing their fresh heads, and in another couple of weeks the kale and spinach will be pulled. Large patches of alcachofa – Jerusalem artichokes – provide Valenciano’s with one of their favourite foods, although I’ve always found them laborious and boring to eat, and the spikey grey/green leaves seem to overwhelm the plant that produces such a small amount of edible material.
A five-minute drive from my little patch of sunlight, the rice fields of the Albufera begin, once the biggest rice producer in Spain. In fact, during the Moorish occupation of the country this region was the most productive in the then known world. At the turn of the year the rice fields of the Albufera look like little more than a patch of sodden earth after a heavy storm has passed, but by June the emerald green stalks will stretch as far as the eye can see, broken only by the occasional one-storey casita, where there farmer stores his tools and where he would once have slept during harvest time.
On the other side of the city, running alongside the motorway that follows the coastline to Barcelona, later in the year a carpet of darker green will cover the ground. These are chufa, tiger nuts, that make horchata, the strange milky-looking drink that’s supposed to contain more vitamins and minerals than almost any other plant, coming a close second to the magical aloe vera. At least with horchata you can savour its fresh, slightly sweet flavour, whereas swallowing the juice of the aloe vera is like trying to gulp down a slithery, slimy egg. Served with giggle-worthy (at least to the British) sponge fingers called fartons, horchata is a favourite drink of Fallas and hot summer days.
I never leave the huerto without a few plant cuttings, this time it was from a great stand of papyrus. Up-ended into a jar of water, they will begin to put out roots in a couple of months, and by late summer will be about two metres high. It’s how my terrace garden comes together; a bit here, a bit there…although I think I’ll draw a line at flooding it and trying to grow rice.