I first heard about horchata only a few months ago. During a Spanish class in Krakow, we were talking about things we would like to see or try when in Valencia. I’d lie if I said that at that time I knew much about Valencia or Spain. Our departure was still a month away, and having to commute from Zielona to Kraków every day for the Spanish class, has left me with very little free time to do proper research about the city I was about to move to for the next two months.
When Maylen, our Spanish teacher, asked us what our plans for Valencia were – we all had a pretty vague idea of how we are going to use our spare time there, I think. We were asked the same question again, a few days later, during a blogging workshop with Ania from Fundacja Proaktywni.
‘What are you going to write about on our blog?’, she asked. One of the tasks of the ‘Gotuj po hiszpańsku‘ (Cook in Spanish) project was to write about our experiences in Valencia on the blog, that is, in result, created by the participants of most editions of the project. To answer Ania’s enquiry, I did what I always do: opened my browser and typed in the search window ‘Valencia things to do’. Horchata came up as one of the first results, and seeing this cluster of two hitherto unknown words – horchata de chufa – presumably meaning something that can be eaten – I was (obviously) intrigued. Food I have never heard of and it comes from Spain, which is so close? That can’t be.
Luckily, soon after our arrival in Spain, all 11 of us cocineros locos, were invited by our Spanish teacher, Jaume for an afternoon trip to Alboraya. Located a half an hour metro ride away from Valencia city centre, Alboraya is a town in Valencia municipality, that is famous for horchata. It is, in fact, where horchata’s story started in Spain when it was brought to the country by Arabs in the 8th century. It was also the Arabs who built a very efficient irrigation system in the area.
In Valencian ‘huerto’ refers to someone’s small allotment, whereas ‘Huerta’ to the fertile coastal plain around the city of Valencia. The ‘Huerta’ (to which Alboraya belongs) has been used to grow vegetables and citrus fruits for centuries, at least since the Roman conquest. But the ‘Huerta’ we know today, with its characteristic irrigation canals that turned the Valencian countryside into farmers’ paradise, was created by the Arabs around the 8th century. Their ingenious planning allowed to channel the waters of Turia River, build dams, canals and watermills and hence transform the swamps around Valencia into an agricultural haven.
It was also the Arabs who introduced chufa to Valencia, a tuber that is used to make horchata – much-adored beverage in Valencia province.
What is chufa?
Chufas, also known as tiger nuts, are not nuts but in fact weed-like tubers. They grow underground and can be found in the wild as well. Chufas have long been considered a health food: ancient Egyptians and Persians used them as medicine. Tiger nuts were found in pharaohs’ tombs, which may indicate that they were consumed, and probably cultivated in Ancient Egypt. They were brought to Spain by Arabs, however, and soon became a favourite in Spain, too. Their health properties have been recognised, and a very refreshing and invigorating drink have been created out of chufa nuts here.
It was horchata de chufa, of course, known also as orxata in Valencian – a sweet, cold, invigorating drink made from chufa ‘milk’, sugar and ice. The word ‘horchata‘ comes from Latin hordeata, which in turn comes from hordeum (barley). According to scholars, the term is related to a Mediterranean tradition of grain-based beverages. Although the term horchata is often associated with Mexico, where milky, grain-milk based beverages are very popular, the original horchata comes from the tiger nuts (chufas). The concept was brought to South and Central America from Valencia, where the original horchata de chufa remains popular to this day.
How is it made?
Tiger nuts (chufa) are dried, soaked and then ground, usually with sugar. The chufa is healthy, and it is also very high in energy content while being cheap to grow. I was told in Valencia that horchata is a favourite drink of athletes, as it helps quickly replenish energy after training.
Horchaterias, places that specialise in horchata, are quite popular in Valencia, indeed. You see them on almost every street, and horchata is also sold from small carts, in various points of the city. The best thing about having oneself a little horchata afternoon is the fact that it comes with a treat. Horchata is usually served with fartons, you see, long, iced pastries that are softer than a cloud. They are baked to be dipped in horchata – created to serve a mission, and they do it pretty damn well.
During our visit to Alboraya, Jaume invited us all to horchateria, to try our first horchata. They offered three choices: liquid, thick and granita version. I went for a granita, and it was the best choice, I think. The drink arrived almost frozen, so I had to eat it with a spoon, rather than drink with a straw. The flavour at first did not surprise me as something entirely new, it was rather a well-known, sweet and insipid flavour, nothing exciting. It was the aftertaste, however, when I got to taste horchata properly.
It instantly brought to my mind thought of almonds and carrots, I wasn’t sure if I like it or not, but I kept trying to figure it out while eating my whole granita. It was good. The addition of a farton, that tastes great with horchata (as we were told it would), made the experience even more enjoyable. Our visit reminded me of an afternoon tea in England (here called merienda), when people stop for half an hour, sit down, have tea and biscuits (horchata and farton would be the equivalents here), and chat. I love these kinds of days when there is time for an afternoon tea, as they are not that common at all. To have 12 people sit at the same table, all enjoying a nice drink, a sweet pastry and each others company is pretty awesome. Thanks, Jaume for this great afternoon!