Three days in Dénia outside Valencia taught me that Spain has some of the most delicious shellfish in the world called gamba roja (Dénia red prawns) and that socarrat – a caramelized crust below the rice – is the key to a perfect paella. I was invited to join the three-Michelin-starred chef Quique Dacosta, his wonderful restaurant manager Didier Fertilati, and their amazing team of chefs, to cook together in the test kitchen. We also went to visit the fish auction in Dénia, which provides the city’s restaurants with fresh produce from the sea on a daily basis.
Stay at El Raset Hotel
The first stop after landing at Valencia airport was a visit to the local organic winery Bodega Mustiguillo. You can check the album on my Facebook page for pictures from the wonderful, rustic, country-style lunch we ate there. While in Dénia we stayed at El Raset Hotel, which was located in a quiet neighborhood very close to the harbor and the fish market. If you also book El Raset Hotel (ad: affiliate link) through my affiliate link when you visit the city, at no extra cost to you, I will receive a small commission which helps me make even better guides for your next travel destination as well. Thank you!
Visiting the Fish Auction in Dénia
Quique Dacosta wanted to show us the unique fish auction in Dénia – so he drove us there! While I get to meet a lot of highly acclaimed chefs in my work, it’s not every day you get a ride with them, and certainly not in their private car.
Our visit to the fish auction started behind the scenes, in the big hall where the fishing boats deliver the fresh catch of the day to be sorted into boxes based on size and species. Most of the fish, crustaceans, and inkfish were so fresh that they were still alive, and a team of workers kept the seafood crisp and glistening by continuously spraying it with cold water.
A Reversed Auction
Once each box was checked and labeled, it was placed on a conveyor belt which transported the luxurious produce into the bidding room. Inside the main hall of the fish auction, all the restaurateurs and fish store owners were gathered, looking at a big screen that announced each new product coming up. The price started high and counted down, and the first bidder who accepted a price – won. So, in fact, it’s a reversed auction in a way. Quique Dacosta was present in the auction hall with a personal bidder, who made sure Dacosta got exactly the product he wanted that day.
In the Test Kitchen of Quique Dacosta
We were shown by restaurant manager Didier Fertilati into the test kitchen of Quique Dacosta. It’s a magical room, or at least they have made a great illusion, where a seemingly empty room with a big table was suddenly transformed into a fully functioning kitchen. All the equipment was hidden behind panels and mirrors that could be slid to the side. Unfortunately, I did not capture on film the moment when the room itself was revealed, but for a foodie, it was somewhat of a Willy Wonka moment.
Dénia Gamba Roja
Dénia is internationally known for the gamba roja. These are simply the best prawns in the world and among the most wonderful crustaceans you can get hold of. Sure, we can brag about having the ultimate scallops, langoustines, and sea urchins in our cold waters outside Norway, but we have to give it to the Spanish when it comes to shrimps.
The Dénia red prawns come in many sizes, and the largest types are called king prawns. Dacosta’s team started by deep frying the smaller ones (or actually medium-sized). “It looks simple, but it’s not,” our host Didier Fertilati explained, “when you fry it, and you can touch it without getting fat or grease on your fingers, that’s how it should be.” We were told to pinch them by the head and bite the entire body and tail off, with the crispy shell still on. Delicious! Crunchy, salty, sweet, and full of flavor.
Next up were the larger types of red king prawns, which we cooked two versions of. The first was simply boiled in seawater – the easiest, but also one of the best ways, to prepare gamba roja according to Quique Dacosta himself. Number two was slightly more tricky for home cooking but still looked easy enough. R&D chef Juanfra Valiente folded a generous amount of coarse sea salt into a batter of whipped egg whites. Each prawn got a bed of this mixture to lay on, which protected from the direct heat of the hot pan. The result was ridiculously juicy. I was so mad at myself for managing to spill a good part of the juices in the head – which is the absolute best part of the Dénia gamba roja! Yes, that’s right, the brain essence explodes with flavor! Luckily, it wasn’t the last shrimp I got to eat during my visit to Quique Dacosta’s restaurant.
Lemonfish in Lemon Juice Inside a Lemon-Fish!
I’m not sure how best to describe the dish of lemonfish in lemon juice presented inside a lemon fish! Was it a soup or a ceviche? Maybe something in between. The fish was not cooked by heat, I believe, but rather cooked by the lemon juices. The texture was almost raw, and the taste was super acidic (which I totally love). In addition to gamba roja, Valencia is also world-famous for its citrus fruits, and the extremely fresh flavor of this dish serves as an excellent example of why it’s so well known.
Perfect Paella Soccarat
“You’re missing the first rice!” Restaurant manager Didier Fertilati fetched me in the kitchen, where I had been distracted on the way back from the restroom by all the amazing creations being prepared. “Oh, burnt rice!” I said when I saw the pan of paella rice. I meant it in a good way, but I used the wrong words, of course. “It’s not burnt, it’s caramelized,” Didier explained. The broth is reduced ever so slightly, and you have to listen carefully for the popping sounds and smell the toasted, but not burnt, rice as it begins to dry off at the bottom of the pan. “We call it soccarat,” Quique told us.
I can tell you this much: I’ve never eaten real paella until I had it in Quique Dacosta’s test kitchen. The delicious, crispy, sugar-sweet, umami-rich and salty rice crust is what makes paella so great! I had to restrain myself from munching more and more from the pan because we had two more varieties coming up. One with Secreto Iberico and one with squid ink, calamari, artichokes, and aioli.
A Final Late Night Snack in the Kitchen
We were only supposed to have one dessert in the test kitchen. After the “moss on the forest floor,” spectacularly presented with liquid nitrogen effects, we withdrew to the lounge area to relax. We got espresso coffee, fresh herbal tea, and endless refills of Bollinger Champagne (or maybe it was just me who kept asking?). However, I was too curious about watching the preparations in the kitchen, which I was distracted from earlier, so I snook out to capture some more footage.
After a while, Didier Fertilati – the best restaurant host in the world – probably figured I was getting hungry again and brought me a final late-night snack in the kitchen. A dessert called Cuba Libre of foie gras, which Didier described as “a signature dish of the restaurant […] with a veil of Coca-Cola and rum, granita of lemon and a homemade brioche.” How did he know how much I love foie gras and brioche?! (Who doesn’t?) Imagine, the rich, creamy foie gras, contrasted by the sweetness of the rum & cola veil and the ice-cold cubes of acidic slushie. I’ll never forget the moment when I stood amidst the busy cooks of a three-Michelin-starred restaurant and enjoyed this marvelous dish next to the dishwashing station. And to think, this was all just a teaser of the actual meal at Quique Dacosta’s restaurant, which we would enjoy for lunch the next day! Stay tuned for a full report from that later.
Have you been to Valencia and tasted the amazing gamba roja of Dénia? Please leave a comment.