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Food might not be the first thing you’d associate with Alicante and the Costa Blanca. That would be beaches, perhaps, its mountainous landscape, or the grand Moorish castle, Santa Bárbara.
Dig a little deeper into dish of paella, though, and you’ll discover one of Spain’s most delicious destinations. The region’s history is as evident on the plate as it is on the landscape; its gastronomy seasoned by millennia of diverse inhabitants. Early Iberian tribes, Ancient Greek and Roman settlements, and Moorish rulers all contributed to an intoxicating edible legacy.
The climate and location help, too, with fertile, salt-sprayed farmland and abundant seafood from the Mediterranean Sea. Grab your hire car at Alicante airport and hit the road for a culinary tour from flavour-packed rice dishes to date palm groves sheltering tomatoes and citrus trees.
A stroll around the stalls at Mercado Central (Av. Alfonso X El Sabio 10), housed in a 1920s art deco building in Alicante’s centre, will whet the appetite, and probably get you drooling a little, too. Hundreds of vendors sell nutty jamón ibérico, fat red prawns from Dénia, and sharp goat cheese. Tiny tapas bars and cafes are dotted around the halls, so you can watch the hustle and bustle while nibbling on salted almonds and slithers of charcuterie.
With around 11,000 trees, Palmeral of Elche (Passeig l'Estació 2) is the largest date palm grove in Europe and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, planted during Moorish rule. Crops of heirloom tomatoes and bitter desert greens grow beneath the fronds and among orange and lemon trees. Irrigation channels fed by the Vinalopó River keep the ground moist, while compost from tree prunings enriches the soil. In autumn, the palms yield sticky, caramel-sweet dates.
In Alicante, they take their rice very seriously. Bomba rice, grown in the wetlands, is the mainstay of every dish, while ingredients change depending on the location. By the coast, expect mussels, Dénia red prawns and tender strips of fresh, grilled squid. Inland, saffron-laced rice comes with rabbit, chicken or snails. Look for arroz a banda, an indigenous Alicante rice dish that’s a little less fancy than paella but just as delicious. Literally “rice on the side”, it’s simmered with fish stock and served as a second course. Whatever the rice dish, be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan; in truly authentic restaurants, you’ll reap the best bit – the socarrat, or caramelised crust.
The most authentic tapas bars are the nondescript, perch-at-the-counter joints tucked along back streets and in tiny squares. Tapas began in Alicante as montaditos – morsels placed on rounds of crusty bread, offered free with a glass of wine or beer. The tradition survives on the narrow streets around Alicante’s Town Hall Square, with tiny Meson de Labradores (Calle Labradores 19) dishing out complimentary snacks with drinks. Nearby, Lizarrán Taberna (Rambla Méndez Núñez 18) has a counter with cold montaditos, while hot morsels like salted fish croquettes appear regularly from the kitchen. If you’d prefer to dine at a table, head to Taberna del Gourmet (Calle San Fernando 10) for battered, fried chunks of bacalao (salted cod). Or crunch into toasts topped with house-smoked tuna, duck or broad beans at lively El Palé (Calle Tomás López Torregrosa 13).
Alicante’s semi-sweet, aged Fondillón was once the wine of kings, and it’s still pretty special. In the city, head to wine shop Vinart (Plaza Gabriel Miró 22), where the expert staff will happily give you an introduction to the variety, made with the native Monastrell (or Mourvèdre) grape, which also produces meaty reds and elegant rosés. Many of the region’s 40-something wineries and vineyards, dotted about the Vinalopó River or to the Marina Alta, are open for tastings and tours, though you often need to call ahead and make an appointment. Alternatively, head to one of the area’s many bodegas to sip wines like Marina Alta, a zesty white, or Tesoro de Villena, a red dessert wine with notes of fig.
Round off your culinary road trip in Alicante like the most memorable meals – with something sweet. Blossoming almond trees draw photographers and artists to Jijona, a town on the eastern coast, each spring. They also yield the main ingredient of turron, a traditional nougat made with almonds, honey and egg white. Try it in ice cream from Alicante Esplanade’s artisan stalls, or take home a delicious souvenir; La Granadina (Carrer Girona 7) sells turron, renowned Valor chocolates from Villajoyosa, and other, equally unforgettable, tastes of Alicante.