I’ve been sitting next to my daughter, Nicole, for the last two hours and we are only halfway through the 24-course delight that is lunch in Ricard Camarena’s Two Star Michelin Restaurant. Our journey starts with a courgette flower filled with beetroot tartar, finished with raspberry and ricotta, and sits like a tiny sculpture.

Nicole has been studying culinary entrepreneurship for two years, and there are few cities more delicious to explore than Valencia. The surrounding districts have been home for many centuries to farm growers and producers of food. Indeed, paella originated from the surrounding countryside when the Romans and Arabs took rice and mixed it with vegetables and leftovers to create the satisfying dish now synonymous with Spain. Snails were typically included in those days with rabbit and later chicken added.

Culinary delight

Our stay coincides with Valencia’s Culinary Festival, a 10-day annual event with workshops, tastings and experiences. We joined a bespoke guided tour with the opportunity to meet the city’s most famous chef, Ricard Camarena, at the Valencia Orchard, 10km outside the city centre.

Ricard Camarena at the Valencia Orchard.

The tour begins with a cup of horchata, a traditional Valencian drink, before setting off to inspect the rows of meticulously grown vegetables that fill the larders of Ricard’s restaurants fresh each morning.

His vision of farm-to-fork dining, with his working partner, Tony, began over 20 years ago and culminates at his restaurant next to the Bombas Gens Centre d’Art.

The open kitchen doesn’t impose in this modern space that takes the guest through an oasis of vertical lines and patterned art. Miles Davis jazz soothes in the background as we are introduced to some astonishing combinations from oysters to wild asparagus.

Colour, artistry and surprises make up the backbone of Ricard’s dishes but his message of sustainability and using every part of the vegetable is admirable. A leaf, a seed, a bud, every part of the vegetable is strained, squeezed, chopped or used to garnish in some way. The memory of melted chocolate fondant that disappears on the tongue will stay with me forever.

Camarena’s other restaurants include Canella in the Ruzafa district, which explores the flavours of the Far East, South America and the Mediterranean. Being supplied daily with fresh local produce from Ricard’s orchard outside the city, as are his other restaurants Habitual and Bar X, means visitors can enjoy the unique Camarena commitment to sustainability cooked with flair at a reasonable price. Booking is essential.

La Salita is another Michelin Star restaurant, adorned since 2019. Here celebrity chef Begoña Rodrigo has created a delightful space also in the charming Ruzafa district.

Ruzafa comes from the Arabic for garden, and our experience starts in the garden of this former palace. We begin with a cocktail before moving upstairs to our balcony window looking onto the street below. Dried chamomile hangs from the rafters painted a cool cream and taupe, while minimal stroke art decorates the walls.

Michelle at chef Ricard Camarena’s Restaurant.

Each parcel of food arrives on a different decorated dish – my standout course was the reduction of stock from shrimp served with whole shrimp pressed for four minutes at 140C, making a crunchy accompaniment to the shrimp tartar. For Nicole, it was the quail breast in a broth with a leg of quail on the side that had been marinated in a sweet and sticky sauce.

Each course was a mouth-watering fandango of flavours and our waiter Alex’s attention to detail made the experience especially delightful.

Kids menu is €50 and adult menu is €175pp, not including wine. See ricardcamarena.com

Mercat Central

Perhaps one of the best spots for food lovers is at the Mercat Central where food producers sell their wares six days a week. A pianist plays on the steps outside this elegant building completed in 1910.

Once in the market, the fruit seems healthier and tastier – enriched with Spanish sunshine. It’s a good spot to buy a bottle of wine and some crusty bread, chorizo and a chunk of manchego then picnic in the Turia gardens – Nicole’s idea as she was keen to explore.

After a devastating flood in 1957, the Turia River was diverted to a national park north of the city. In its place the serpentine 9km riverbed became a natural asset to the city providing parkland, football pitches, fountains and Santiago Calatrava’s magnificent architecture at the city of Arts and Sciences. It was inaugurated in 1986 and at weekends it comes alive as a spot to dance into the early hours.

Dishes enjoyed in Valencia.

Tapas lovers will relish a trip to Café Montana, nestled discreetly on the tile-lined narrow streets of the Cabanyal district, close to the beach. The current owners, the Garcia family, have been serving clients for the last 30 years and this popular venue oozes the charm of a rustic bodega with large oak barrels filled with local wine.

The steak is one of the signature must-try tapas but Café Montana’s own brand of olive oil has to be one of the most delicious I’ve tasted anywhere. Served with crusty bread, the list of delicious fish and vegetable treats are reasonably priced at €34pp for the full tapas menu.

We found places in Valencia to suit all wallets and tastes with much to see and do. It’s a vibrant city with free museums, a long stretch of golden sandy beach and a climate that entices year round. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Valencia is that it doesn’t need to boast about being sustainable, clean and green – it’s already been doing it for years.

Where to stay

We stayed at Ilunion4 hotel just outside the walls of the old town and close to public transport. This hotel chain has three properties in the city with Ilunion Agua4 close to the city of Arts and Sciences and L’Oceanografic, the largest aquarium in Europe.

The Ilunion chain have an inclusive employment model in which 40% of the hotel’s employees have special needs or disabilities.

Customer service is premium with all local staff having a vested interest in their work and their hospitality is warm and welcoming.

Our room was clean and spacious, after a complete renovation during the pandemic. The breakfast buffet bar is huge with every option for a hearty breakfast including omelettes and pancakes.

About Valencia

Ilunion4 hotel in Valencia – €150 per night including breakfast for two people; en.ilunionvalencia.com

To help plan your trip, check out visitvalencia.com

Valencia is well serviced with direct flights from Dublin, Cork and Belfast. See ryanair.com

Buy the Valencia Card online and make savings on travel, entry into museums and in restaurants. It can be bought online and costs €25.

Many galleries and museums are free. See valenciatouristcard.com