The attractions of the southern coastal towns of the Valencian Community, from Dénia to Guardamar del Segura. Behind the city of AlicanteHowever, a corridor of scenic and gastronomic values flourishes that is worth visiting. This route will take us from Elche, in the Baix Vinalopó region, to Cocentaina, in El Comtat.
On Elche (or Elx, which is its most appropriate name) you can stop alone to enjoy an impressive palm grove. Its 500 hirsute hectares have been a Unesco world heritage site since 2000, a title that also deserved the Mystery (unique piece of medieval Assumptionist theater) the following year. For lovers of more caloric emotions, we should mention the Magrana Mollar d’Elx designation of origin, a type of pomegranate with an intense flavor and numerous healthy properties.
Not far away we find the Vinalopó bagged grape growing area, that little miracle that fosters the Spanish custom of eating grapes on New Year’s Eve. Its particular maturation process serves them on the table in December, when the rest of the varieties have already completed their harvest.
If we go to the region of L’Alacantí later, we can visit the epicenter of national nougat production. We are in Xixona. From here 15,000 tons a year come out of nougat and marzipan from the Xixona and Alicante designations of origin. This represents 95% of the European market. The secret of this domain cannot be other than the raw material, where the excellent local almond of the Marcona variety stands out. Contemplating, on the other hand, the flowering of the almond tree reconciles us with what a humanized landscape can be spectacularly beautiful.
This variety of products and landscapes is specified in two unavoidable references from the gastronomic world that strengthen the appeal of our route: the school and pastry shop of Paco Torreblanca, in the Alicante town of Petrer, and the restaurant L’Escaleta, in Cocentaina .
Paco Torreblanca (Villena, 1951) is already a classic of the international candy store. For 10 years he studied Pastry and Fine Arts in Paris, which gives an idea of what would be the path of his career in maturity. In 1978 he opened his first pastry shop in Elda (Vinalopó Mitjà). Ten years later, he received the award for Best Master Craftsman in Spain and, two years later, for Best Pastry Chef in Europe. However, some do not discover it until, in 2004, he makes the wedding cake for Felipe and Letizia. By then chocolate no longer had any secrets for Torreblanca, but it was much more mysterious how a republican like him – according to his own confession – was in charge of sweetening the wedding banquet of the future kings of Spain. In reality, he is an unpretentious guy who, after having won all the possible awards (including the Best Restaurant Dessert Pastry Chef in Spain and the author of the Best Panettone in the World outside of Italy), now dedicates his efforts to forming to his students at the International Pastry School (which he founded in 2012), while dreaming of something almost impossible: to find again, in any corner of the world, virgin cocoa plantations. His son Jacob, always by his side, prepares to continue the work, which is now being broadcast on the internet (torreblanca.net).
Some museums have commissioned him to reinterpret classical or modern painters with chocolate. This is where the Torreblanca from the Paris years emerges, and then a Kandinsky line of pure color can taste like chocolate with raspberry, and the sight and the palate merge seeking the perfection of the senses.
Where they know this capital pastry chef well is in the restaurant L’Escaleta, less than an hour from Alicante. The appointment is unavoidable. With two Michelin stars (the first awarded in 2001, the second in 2016), it serves the most delicate indoor recipes. Following Santi Santamaría’s motto that “cooking humanizes nature and makes it edible”, Kiko Moya and his cousin Alberto Redrado have brought the aromas of Alicante to their dishes. Moya was trained in Catalonia and is a world-class chef (he has just been named the first global brand ambassador for saffron by the Israeli company Saffron Tech). Redrado, in turn, is one of the best sommeliers in Spain. Together they have turned the old family business into a small emporium at the foot of Montcabrer, the highest peak in the Sierra de Mariola.
Its secret is to reinterpret traditional delicacies. Its forte are salted fish. A red shrimp, for example, covered in salt for 10 hours loses 25% of its original weight. Salt does not penetrate the shell, but the body removes water. At that point, that little extortion to which it is subjected ensures a plus of flavor. The prawn, which still smells of the sea and a fishing boat, melts in your mouth. Another of Kiko Moya’s strengths is rice. His is the concept of “square rice”, a diverse paella (made with smoked leg and eel, sea nettles and cockscombs, game and mushrooms…) served on a rectangular metal tray. A brilliant idea that has been mercilessly copied, but that’s also a source of pride.
In 2019, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its foundation, L’Escaleta published the book The taste of the magic mountain. There it is explained with conviction that cooking is a universal profession served by unequivocally local agents. The herbs and honey from Mariola, the oil from the olive trees that surround the restaurant, the almonds from Xixona … While Kiko explains his recipes, Alberto Redrado offers the corresponding pairings. This harmony is also that of the landscape, its tastes and aromas served on a plate, as if eating were just a manifestation of harmony with the entire universe.
Joan Garí is the author of ‘Valencia. The inhabitants of the river ‘.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.