Valencian cuisine is a Mediterranean cuisine, which translates to vegetable and seafood extravaganzas. It’s hardly surprising then, that a succulent, flavourful anguila (eel) dish would develop here. All i pebre, chunks of eel and potato coated in a luscious, thick garlic and pepper sauce, is a must-try of Valencian food sorcery (yes, it’s magical!).
A signature dish of Valencia city and the surrounding area, its true origin lies in the Albufera region ten kilometres southeast of the city, beautiful wetlands declared in 1986 as a Parque Natural (natural park). It was centuries earlier that this rich guiso (stew) was born, when the El Palmar district at the heart of the park was a place where its inhabitants were fishing in the lake for eel and other creatures. The Albufera provides not only rice crops for paella, but also a wide, beautiful lake for eels. Families at the time would use anything available in the surrounding region. Luckily for us today, they were able to combine these into a beautiful union of young potatoes with fresh eel in a fragrant garlic, paprika sauce. They had succeeded in touching the sky with their hands (tocar el cielo con las manos) and reaching the heights of deliciousness.
The cradle of the dish lies between the shore of El Palmar, and the Spanish municipality of Catarroja. It is a dish of the lowlands and the marshes, a Valencian delicacy that can rival even the finest paella. Valencian all i pebre means “ajo y pimentón” in castellano Spanish and “garlic and pepper” in English, essentially referring to the sauce that makes up the heart of this dish. Other base ingredients include eel and potatoes, although these can be substituted by bread and other types of fish (e.g. flounder, crawfish, grouper, monkfish, or striped mullet). But the spicy sauce with olive oil, garlic and paprika is essential, and has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
Today, all i pebre is hotly contested, with restaurants in El Saler, Catarroja, El Palmar, and all the way south to Sueca, showcasing their prized versions of the popular dish. There is even an international competition in Catarroja every September. About 200 participants prepare their most elaborate stew, which is then judged by experts. The dish is also prepared for the more than 3,000 visitors, so that everyone can enjoy a succulent bite of deliciousness.
But in this day and age, eels in the Albufera lake have become a rarity, so that most eels used in the Valencian dish come from one of the many fish farms in the area. While in 1950 – 1951 the community of fishers in El Palmar was able to catch 90,000 kilos of eel, in 1976 – 1977 it was only 10,000. If you’re interested, head on over to El Periodico, which gives a more detailed account of this. Effectively, the eels now used in all i pebre are the saltwater kind – more juicy and tasty than their freshwater counterparts.
El Palmar is arguably the most famous place for the dish, but perhaps because of this attraction of tourists who come once, never to be seen again, there is the risk of coming across a restaurant that may be lazy to prepare it with the care and love any dish deserves. Luckily, we came across one that had love left to pass on to us.
We took the bus from El Saler to El Palmar, after we had been walking along the beach, drawing letters into the sand, picking up shells and letting them drop to the floor again. We had some cañas, some vino, felt the breeze sweeping in from the sea. The sun was starting to set and we were hungry. We had read about l’Albufera and the beautiful lake – but was it worth the ride into the unknown where all restaurants might be closed? Peak time had passed, beach-goers were making their way home, but we were hungry not only for food, but for an adventure.
The bus arrived, we were told there was no more bus back that day. After a negligible moment of hesitation we got on, and enjoyed the ride in silence, in anticipation of this lake we had heard about. We passed houses, trees, rice fields, aquatic birds.
And then the lake sprung into view. It was a breathtaking sunset over the shimmering waters, impossible to capture with a camera, impossible to capture even as a memory. So beautiful and so fleeting – we passed it, we held our breath, and then it was gone. More trees and plants came into view and out of focus again, all part of the scenery. The lake was visible in between the leaves, and somehow we knew we had made the right choice.
The little town of El Palmar was a ghost city when we arrived. But a vivacious abuela (grandmother) and her beautiful blonde-haired granddaughter in a flower dress crossed the road we had arrived at, and I rushed to ask her where we could have dinner. She pointed ahead and repeated: “¡En la plaza, en la plaza!” So we made our way to the plaza, the town square. And there it was, Llar del Pescador, the restaurant where we were to have our first ever all i pebre. The only stranded tourists in a lakeside town, it felt as though we were outside of time.
Mind you, time caught up with us eventually, but for a long moment we were humbly enjoying the warm summer air, the quiet of a sleepy village ten kilometres from the nearest city. We carefully shared morsels of our food with a one-eyed, affectionate grey cat, we wiped clean our plates with the delicious homemade bread, we laughed and smiled heartily after our second glass of Albufera vino tinto (red wine).
And of course we did no less than revel in the all i pebre. Golden potatoes and tender eels soaked in sumptuous garlic liquor. The slippery eel measuring almost one metre in length, with fins just behind its head, cut up into chunks, soft and juicy, bathed in a thick, unctuous sauce. The meat was delicate and soft, infused with the spicy, finger-licking sauce that is unique to the dish. It was intense, an explosion of flavours, with a mild sweetness cutting through.
I have yet to plan a return, but when I do, a trip to the fish farm in El Palmar where eels can be touched, is imminent. Next, in Valencia city, I would watch how they are washed and dried in the market. At the competition in Catarroja I would learn how the stew is cooked and try the end result. The perfect full-circle culinary adventure. For more Valencian culinary adventure ideas, check out these articles on the hearty arroz al horno, creamy arroz negro, deliciously sweet horchata, and Korean food at Jalasan.
Area: El Palmar, Spain
Address: Plaça de la Sequiota, 11