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La Ensalada Valenciana

Ensalada Valenciana | Delightful CrumbI’ve been thinking lately about the places that most matter to us—those that are not just objectively special, but also subjectively so. Some places we can all agree are extraordinary: famed vacation destinations, the national parks, hip new restaurants, the long-lived classics. Most people can at least appreciate the charms of New York City and London; I’ve never heard anyone argue that Hawaii is not as beautiful as they say. The Grand Canyon truly is grand, the Rocky Mountains are majestic, and Paris is, in fact, a magical city.

I’m not talking about home either, which many of us cherish for rather obvious reasons of nostalgia. What I’m talking about are the places that matter to us in a way that transcends their concrete qualities. There’s an intersection here, of course. But I think that for each of us, there are places that simply speak to us in another language altogether.

For me, a prime example is Denia, a lovely seaside town in Valencia, Spain, where I lived as a student in 2007. I was enchanted with this place from the start, as soon as I first walked the streets with my brand-new host mom, Maite, to her apartment on a dark January night. She looped her arm through mine and chattered excitedly all the way. I can almost conjure the feeling: thrilled for the adventure but knowing nothing of what was ahead.

There’s an old castle in Denia, where, for the grand admission price of three euros, visitors can more or less run free to scramble across the ruins, visit a humble museum with a smattering of ancient artifacts, admire the city and coastline from above. And there’s a mountain, too, called Montgó, where I hiked just once with friends, stopping to eat our sandwiches of tortilla española on soft baguette, getting good and lost before making it home just as dusk was falling.

Denia runs into the Mediterranean, with a rocky, wild coastline in one direction and a sandy beach in the other. Maite lived in a plaza alongside the water, the historic home of the fisherman, each apartment marked by a tile depicting fisherman at work, some of whom still live in this and the adjoining plaza. I could see the vast, blue Mediterranean from the kitchen window, where I’d sit with my morning yogurt and coffee made with an unfamiliar percolator, then again at lunchtime, when Maite and I would eat the hearty midday meal together, which most always included a simple salad we’d finish at the table with olive oil and vinegar, a practice new to me. I jogged down the path on the rocky side of the beach and hiked even further with friends to an ancient tower perched where the coastline twisted to the right. I drank coffee with Maite, paired with pan con mantequilla y mermelada, on weekly dates to her favorite cafés. I explored the city with my new German friends, girls who worked at the local church, meeting in the middle with our shared language of Spanish. I studied a lot, for better or worse, in our tiny apartment or at the library. And I spent time with our neighbors. We ate together in the little common space in the back of the plaza, feasting on paella, and celebrated Las Fallas—which is a story all its own, given that the festival involves burning huge statues made of papier-mâché. It was my first time living in a home that wasn’t my parents’, and I loved the very fact that I had neighbors, not to mention a new city to wander through, to class and back down the palm-lined street.

Denia | Delightful CrumbI was primed for the experience, of course, eager to study abroad, ready for adventure, excited to finally visit this country I’d dreamed about for years. And I realize that I existed in the separate plane of a student and of the young, detached from the everyday struggles of adulthood. Yet I felt, even then, that this place was particularly special—for me. While some students traveled every weekend, I more often stayed in Denia, recognizing that the chance to live with a feisty 72-year-old Madrileña wasn’t one that would likely come again.

At first, I thought I’d be right back. I thought that would be easy, unaware of the demands of a full time job, financial challenges, competing priorities—all of those things that get in the way. And so, the years passed. But even from the early days of our relationship, Ben and I dreamed of the European trip we’d take: revisiting Spain for me and the Netherlands for him.

It took a long time, but in the summer of 2017, we did just that. And so, exactly 10 years later, I returned to Denia. I’d told my stories enough that I was confident in the city’s objective greatness. But I’m not sure I recognized the subjective part, the wave of emotions that hit me when we rolled into town on a sweaty July night, after making two buses—one just barely—from the airport in Alicante. Or when we had a proper 10 pm dinner on the bustling street of our hostel that night, then walked down to the water and over to my old plaza, bathed in yellow light, looking so familiar that, for a moment, it felt as if no time had passed since I’d been there.

I feel at ease in Spain, but particularly in Denia, calmed by the sea and the joyfulness of the food, simple and complex at once: lengths of toasted baguette topped with butter and jam for breakfast; masterful rice dishes, of which paella is only the beginning; a rectangle of perfect coca bought on a whim from a corner bakery after visiting Maite in the nearby town where she now lives; ensalada valenciana in its varied forms; pan con tomate; beautiful seafood and fish fresh from the sea; allioli with everything.

I’ve been fortunate to go on a few exciting trips—some work, some vacation—these past few years. And all were, indeed, thrilling. But some places, like Denia, feel distinto, to use one of my favorite Spanish words that doesn’t quite translate. I’m hoping to make the once-every-10-years thing a tradition, but in the meantime, I’m grateful for photos and journals, a husband who has now seen this place and loved it, too, and the food that can, if only for a moment, bring me back.

Al Forn | Delightful Crumb

Ensalada Valenciana

Serves 2 as a meal or 4 as a side

This is a simple salad, a rendition of which is served at most any restaurant in the Valencia region of Spain. Feel free adjust to your preferences, breaking from tradition per your taste or the seasons or what you have on hand. I sometimes add avocado, and I’ve also seen it served, as pictured above, with shredded carrot or red cabbage. I know that the raw corn might seem surprising, but I like its fresh flavor. You could also blanch the cobs before cutting the corn off the cob. I should note that I’ve typically been served this salad in Valencia with canned corn, so that shortcut would perhaps be the most authentic option! And the olives typically aren’t pitted, but do as you like and consider warning your dining companions if you leave them in.

For an easy meal, roast some potatoes and/or serve with a fresh baguette—or, even better, pan con tomate. I’ve listed the rough quantities for a big salad, which the two of us can eat as a meal but would make an excellent side for four or five if there’s more food on the table.

2-4 eggs

1 onion (red or white), halved and sliced into thin half moons

Lettuce, such as mixed greens, little gem lettuce or butter lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces if desired

1-2 cobs of corn, shucked and cleaned, corn cut off the cob

1 large or 2 small tomatoes, sliced into large wedges

1 small cucumber, cut into cubes

1 5-oz. can high-quality oil- or water-packed tuna, drained and broken up into pieces

A handful of olives, such as Castelvetrano


Freshly cracked black pepper

Good olive oil

Sherry or red wine vinegar (or a quartered lemon)

First, cook the eggs. Fill a pot with water and bring it to a boil. Gently place the eggs in the pot and begin a timer. For this salad, I like my yolks slightly runny but not overly so, achieved at about 7 minutes. For a firmer yolk, cook for 8 minutes. When the eggs are cooked to your liking, removed them with a slotted spoon and place them in ice water to cool.

Place the sliced onion in a small bowl with a pinch of salt and a pour of vinegar. Massage the onion and let rest to mellow its flavor while you prepare the rest of the salad.

On a large platter or wide serving bowl, arrange the lettuce. Top with the rest of the ingredients, arranged in sections: the corn, tomatoes, cucumber, tuna and olives. Remove the onion from the vinegar and add that as well.

Peel the eggs and slice them in half or quarters lengthwise. Arrange them on top of the salad. Sprinkle the salad with salt and pepper.

Finish with generous pours of olive oil and vinegar, or place the bottles on the table so that your guests can serve themselves.

Streets of Denia | Delightful Crumb

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