When half-Dutch, half-Spanish Suzie Añón y García left the Netherlands to live in Valencia, she had no idea she’d end up running some of the most successful food tours in the city. But her passion for food in Valencia overshadowed her other plans (like running a city game), and soon her casual food recommendations grew into fully fledged, best-selling tapas tours.
Valencia is known for moreish paella, refreshing drinks, and a generally delicious take on classic Spanish fare. So, if you’re planning a trip to Valencia or looking to add a little Spanish flavour to your kitchen at home, read on for a few of this local tour guide and foodie’s favourite things.
1. How long have you lived in Valencia and what made you decide to move here?
I’ve been living in Valencia for over a decade now! I studied hotel management in the Netherlands and then mainly worked in restaurants. I’m half-Spanish and half-Dutch, so having spent most of my time in the Netherlands, I was attracted to the idea of living in Spain. One of my cousins lived in Valencia and I’d visited them several times, and I just really liked the city. It felt like the perfect place to live; the weather’s great – you can get sunburnt in the middle of winter! – and it felt more local than cities like Barcelona or Madrid.
2. How did you end up getting into food tours in Valencia?
When I arrived, I had to find a job as quickly as possible. The Netherlands is pretty big on bicycles as a form of transportation, so I decided the first thing I needed was a bicycle to be able to get around and go job hunting. I thought a second-hand bicycle would be cheaper than something brand new, so I wrote to all the bicycle rental shops in town and asked if they had any bicycles to sell – and while I was asking that, I also asked if they were looking for bicycle tour guides. Very soon I had a job as a tour guide – even though I didn’t know the city too well back then.
To make ends meet, I also had to work at a call center – which I hated! But this turned out to be a great motivator because within my first year in Valencia, I started my own business. That business was offering tours, but I also wanted to bring something new, something that locals could enjoy too. I was inspired by a concept I’d first seen in the Netherlands: city games – I’ll explain more about that later.
While I was creating my website, once I was a licenced tour guide, I thought I may as well offer bicycle tours too. And then I thought ‘Let’s do a tapas tour – I like food, I know food’. And, whenever I gave a tour, people were always asking for food recommendations, and I was always happy to provide them.
The tapas tours became very popular very quickly – even more popular than the city games! They sold really well, and I enjoyed doing them.
3. How do you go about putting together an itinerary for a food tour in Valencia?
To be honest, I started doing these tours without really knowing what I was doing, my main goal was to share my favorite tapas places and Spanish food knowledge with travellers. I treated them like friends visiting from another country… Sometimes I wasn’t even sure where I would take people! I also didn’t know how much running the tours would cost me, plus I hadn’t spoken to any restaurants about what I was planning.
But once I’d seen there was real interest in the tours, I got organised. I started making better arrangements with the restaurants and found more restaurants to work with so that I could cater to different groups on different days.
At some point, I decided it might become boring to do the same tours over and over, so I branched out into other tour types. I kept the tapas tours in the evening, but also started doing market tours in the morning, and I kept the format of the tapas tours quite flexible to cater to different tastes and budgets.
4. So what does a standard tapas tour look like?
We start at a pintxos bar, which is actually a concept from the north of Spain. There’s an assortment of tapas available and if you’re part of the tour, you choose two pintxos to go with whatever drink you’d like. This is kind of like Spanish fast food, it’s not like McDonald’s, but it’s fast. It’s also practical because it’s served at all times of day, it’s laidback and it’s suitable for families. Plus, some restaurants in Spain only open at 9pm, so if you’re hungry at 6pm, this kind of a place is good for a snack!
Next stop is a local tapas bar, but not a tapas restaurant. It’s one of those places where if you don’t know about it, you wouldn’t find it. It’s not on Tripadvisor, they don’t have a website, they’re just a small local tapas bar. I like it because it’s really Spanish; it’s noisy, and a lot of Spanish people hang out there. A lot of people like it, some people don’t. But visiting it with a local definitely helps in terms of appreciating and understanding this kind of bar.
Our third bar, which is actually a restaurant, is our last stop. We usually choose a family-owned business with traditional, freshly prepared tapas. This is also a nice restaurant to spend the whole evening at. After the tapas, we finish with a chupito – or a shot as you say in English – and a traditional Spanish toast. After that we send you off to a nice cocktail bar or we leave you to enjoy the restaurant.
5. You mentioned that the first bar serves pintxos, which are from the north of Spain?
Yes, spoiler alert: Valencia is not actually traditionally known for tapas – or rather there isn’t a tapas culture in the city.
For example, in the south of Spain, you get a free tapa with every drink. But in Valencia we have more of a restaurant culture. We have a tapas culture in the sense that meals are made up of a lot of small bites for people to share, but it’s not traditional in Valencia to go tapas bar hopping the way it is in the south or in the north of Spain. Of course, we have some traditional Valencian tapas, like cod with roasted peppers and garlic, a traditional Valencian dish called Esgarraet. In the tour I like to share the tapas culture of Spain and mention what’s traditionally Valencian. We get to share and try about 10 different tapas!
6. I had no idea! So, what are some traditional foods in Valencia?
Paella, and rice in general, are traditional Valencian foods. We even have rice restaurants, which a lot of people go to on Sundays.
It’s important to remember that not all Spanish rice dishes are paella. For Valencia, a traditional paella includes chicken, rabbit and beans. If you have, for example, a seafood paella then it’s called a paella de marisco.
The name “paella” comes from the name of the pan, but that doesn’t mean that everything made in a paella is a paella. A few years ago Jamie Oliver made a “paella”. For us Valencians, it was an outrage because he made rice with things in it, not a paella!
Another thing about paella: it’s an afternoon dish. We have five meals a day, and paella is always an afternoon dish because it’s such a heavy dish. It’s cooked slowly, and usually eaten on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon – I suppose it’s a bit like a barbeque. During the week you could go to a restaurant that makes paella, but that’s not the true Valencian paella experience.
And if you don’t like rice, you must try the pasta version – fideuá. The dish is made in a paella pan, but with pasta. A must-try traditional drink would be aqua de Valencia, which is made from orange juice, cava and gin or vodka. And yes, translated that means water of Valencia! Horchata is also a very traditional and delicious drink. It’s kind of like almond milk, it’s made with ground tiger nuts mixed with water and sugar. And if you’re in Valencia in summer, make sure you order your coffee el tiempo, which means “with the temperature”. You won’t get a typical iced coffee, you’ll get a glass of ice and lemon and your coffee and you mix that up as you desire.
7. Hang on, did you say five meals a day?
I did! We start with desayuno (breakfast), which includes toast with tomato or a small croissant, and coffee.
Then we have almuerzo (mid-morning snack), which is taken very seriously here in Valencia. It’s a bigger meal where you’d usually have a baguette, or half a baguette, filled with all kinds of fillings. Some of the more traditional options are black and white sausage or Spanish tortilla with ham and tomato. Usually, you order a meal like this at a bar and you get olives or peanuts while you wait. You’d also usually order a drink with that – maybe beer or wine, or a soda. And, yes it’s only 11am. When you finish that you get a coffee and if you pay 50 cents more, you get alcohol in your coffee. The traditional Valencian option is a cremaet, which is coffee with a bit of rum, some sugar, some cinnamon and a bit of orange. It smells delicious!
Our big meal of the deal, la comida (lunch), is usually eaten at 2pm. This can be a three-course meal. A lot of people used to eat this meal in restaurants but it is becoming more popular to bring your lunch from home.
Then we have our merienda (mid-afternoon snack), which is usually something sweet like fruit or churros con chocolate. It can also be something savory, maybe a tapa and a beer.
Finally we have la cena (dinner) at 9, 10, or even 11pm. Which makes sense if you’ve had a lot of food during the day – you wouldn’t want to eat any earlier!
8. It’s amazing hearing all about the culture and food in Valencia! Right now, fewer people can physically travel there because of Covid-related restrictions, but I hear you’ve found a way to bring Valencia to them. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Yes, you can do a cooking class with me! At the moment, I’m running a tapas cooking class which I adapt around what people would like to cook. So if you have an amazing food memory in Spain, I am more than happy to help you recreate that.
The class lasts about 1.5 hours and I also tell you a little bit about the origins of the recipe, and more about the ingredients that make up the recipe – and of course after you’ve cooked everything you get to enjoy it! I also have a playlist that I send over for you to enjoy while you’re cooking. You can also check out my blog post on how to experience Spain if you can’t get there. In there, I’ve included movies, music and of course things to eat.
Another way to experience the finest food in Valencia without being there is my food tour in a box. Maybe you can get some typical Spanish foods where you are, but there are probably products you can’t get – especially typically Valencian products.
What I do is I buy some very typical Valencian products from local businesses nearby, or from the market, I get pictures or videos from the owners about the products, and then I send you a box of products and an e-book with the videos and pictures from the owners about how to use those products. Typically I include some charcuterie, some cheese, something sweet like Turron (it’s like nougat with almonds and honey – I have recipes on how to make it but it’s one of those things that’s better to buy!), or roasted almonds (in the region we have a lot of almonds). I also include saffron and pimenton (smoked paprika powder) – this is in a lot of Spanish recipes and it’s hard to get a good one abroad. I include chufas (tiger nuts) to make horchata and I give you a recipe. You can also just soak the tiger nuts in water and eat them like that.
9. This sounds absolutely delicious! How did you come up with the idea?
I came up with the idea during the first lockdown in Spain. As with most of my ideas, I put the concept on my website before I had really organised anything, and if it sold I’d find a way to make it work!
I take a lot of food as gifts to my friends in the Netherlands. I knew how much they liked those gifts and what they liked, so that was the inspiration behind it. You can just order Spanish ham, cheese or olive oil, but if you get the story behind these ingredients and a recipe to create with them, you get more of the Spanish experience. It felt important to be able to give that to people during lockdown.
There were challenges of course. Sending to the US, for example, proved to be really difficult but sending within Europe was much easier.
10. And what about locals? How important do you think it is for someone to explore and experience their own city?
Right now, more and more people in Valencia are interested in their own city. Mostly they go to the places they already know. I feel like I know the city better than a lot of locals do because I’ve made it my business to know the city inside out. A lot of my local friends ask me where to go and where to eat!
A lot of Valencians are tour guides as well, so I didn’t feel like I could offer tours to locals. However this felt like an opportunity to introduce a new city game!
City games are a really nice way to discover the city in a different way. They’re kind of like scavenger hunts: you get some instructions, and then you follow the clues to find different spots in the city. Along the way, you learn a lot about the city; you visit famous street art sites, architectural monuments, and hidden gems. In our city game, we’ve even built in restaurant recommendations! Someone who knows the city will enjoy it because they might recognise some of the clues, but it’s easy enough that those who don’t know the city will still be able to figure it out.
I’ve already created a Valencia city game, but I wanted to offer something that people can do using just their own phones. I found a company that has city games in different cities and Valencia was not one of them so I created one with them for Valencia. We have made sure the secret city walk is fun for both locals and visitors.
I’m definitely coming up with things that are more flexible having lived and worked through the pandemic. Even after Covid, I think people will want to avoid big group tours, they’ll want experiences, they’ll want to support local businesses. That’s what I would like anyway!
11. What’s the one Valencian dish or food that you want everyone to try while they’re stuck in lockdown?
Hmm, let’s make it a Spanish dish… and a drink! I recommend making Tinto de Verano (which means red from summer). When you have leftover red wine, you mix it with Fanta lemon and ice cubes. It’s a typical drink in Spain! It’s probably even more popular than Sangria.
And for the dish, I suggest making Gambas al ajillo. You can make it in five minutes. All you need is de-shelled shrimp, garlic, spicy peppers (which I include in my food tour in a box!), parsley, olive oil and baguette.
Put the olive oil in a small pan on the stove top or over a fire. Add the garlic and the peppers, and when the oil is bubbling add the shrimp and salt. When the shrimps have turned pink, take it off the heat and add the parsley – that’s it! The baguette is for dipping in the delicious oil the shrimps were cooked in.
There you go, in 10 minutes you have a great Spanish meal!
12. That sounds really good – and really easy to make. So when we’re all out of lockdown and can start traveling, what are your top tips for a visit to Valencia?
Rent a bicycle, it’s a bikeable city. Go to a market and buy some food there, it’s a really nice experience. Third, and most important, book an experience with me!