Besides paella, Valencia is also home to very unique sort of Vegan Milk made from “chufas” (“Xufas” in Catalonian). It’s called “Horchata” (“Orxata”) or more explicitly Horchata de Chufa to point out the difference compared to South and Latino-American horchatas based on either rice (Horchata de Arroz in Mexico), sesame seeds (Horchata de Ajonjoli – Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico) or herbs and flowers (Horchata Lojana – Ecuadorian pink color tea-drink). Horchata de chufa is a very refreshing, healthy and mineral-rich drink of white-milky appearance made as a mixture of water and extract from pressed chufas. It is served ice-cold (for best experience the temperature must not exceed +2 degC), usually with ingredients enhancing taste and freshness (cinnamon and lemon) and optionally with sweetener (sugar).
One of the most popular horchaterias in Valencia is “Santa Catalina” (proudly advertised as “Casa con dos siglos de tradicion”). This very-Valencian local with two centuries of tradition and history “engraved” on tailed walls is located on the Plaza de Santa Catalina, next to the namesake Tower. The horchata usually will be served with long buns called “fartons”, making it more than just the drinking session.
Now few words about etymology of the name Horchata. While nothing is certain, most linguists tend to agree that the word “horchata” comes from the Latin word “hordeāta” meaning “made of barley”. It seems to relate to pre-chufa drinks based on barley that for quite some time were popular in the Medieval world.
The “fairy-tale” version of Horchata brings us to the time of Spanish King Jaume. According to the local legend (chufadevalencia.org), when the king visited the region of Valencia, a young girl offered him the “chufa drink”. Bemused by the rich, refreshing taste of the drink, he asked the girl: “Qué es això?” (what it is?). The girl answered: “Es llet de xufa” (It’s chufa milk). Then the King, replied with amazement: “Això no es llet, això és OR, XATA” (This is not the milk, this is the gold (OR), my sweetie (XATA). Well, whatever the king said, the fact is that these days horchata gains popularity due to its nutritional value, unique taste and obviously our more and more health-focused approach to the diet.
What is Chufa?
I’m sure that for most of us, chufas (even under their English name “tiger nuts”) do not sound familiar. Chufa belongs to the family of grass-like plants with triangular stems called sedges. It thrives in moist soils in warm and temperate climate zones.
The useful part of the plant are its enlarged roots called “tubers”, serving as the storage of energy and nutrients for perennial regrowth (good example of tuber is potato). In the case of chufas, these edible parts are called “nuts” probably by similarity to much more familiar “peanuts”, although genetically, both species are not very close cousins.
Chufas have starchy texture, slightly bitter-sweet taste and the “nutty” flavor resembling hazelnuts and/or almonds (for this reason, sometimes they are also called “earth almonds”).
Right: Chufa’s underground tubers (Source: Tourne-Sol Co-operative Farme (QC, Canada)
Left: Chufa plant (Source: Wikipedia, author: dr. Stanley Kays)
After the harvest, chufas are carefully washed, cleaned and then dried. Usually it is a long natural process (traditionally sun-drying) taking up to three months. But as we know, today’s “industrial era” has its own procedures, often overruling centuries old traditions. During the drying process the water content in tiger-nuts is typically reduced from about 50% to close to 10% making them resistant to rot, bacterial infections etc… and so, ready for longer shelf-time (in other words for commercial use). After drying, chufa nuts look similar to more familiar to us chickpeas (or if you wish – garbanzo beans), although they are slightly smaller, more brownish and definitely heavily wrinkled.
Dry (dehydrated) tiger nuts are quite hard, so they are rarely consumed in this form. If you try, you will find that they have nut’s texture and very intense taste and flavor (but after that, a visit to dentist may be imminent). Normally, before consumption, dried tiger nuts should be soaked in the water for about 24 hours to make them suitable for sweet, refreshing snack. Due to this “limitation”, raw tiger nuts are rather mixed with several other components and provided in form of “energy bars”.
The truth is that the most favorable for consumption form of tiger-nuts is based on their milk. Prior to that, nuts are soaked in water, then crashed, grinded, pressed and sieved to extract the “milky” juice. It will have similar creamy consistency as soy or almond milk, however very different and frankly quite unique flavor. While the chufa milk (“leche de chufa”) is gaining traction on local and international markets due its indisputable nutritional value and our growing eco-awareness, Valencia is traditionally the Capital of chufa-milk based drinks known as Horchata.
In fact, chufas are rich in minerals (phosphorus, magnesium, iron…), include vitamin C and E, unsaturated fats, starch and fiber. But what is also very important – chufas do not contain lactose, gluten and cholesterol and the content of another known “killer” – sodium, is very marginal. Also, chufas’ carbohydrates are based on “higher quality” sugars like sucrose and starch, representing much lower glycemic index than glucose. If sugar (or any other sweetener) is not added, horchata may be considered as healthy, refreshing energy drink making part of traditionally Mediterranean cuisine. Actually (as a sign of time), the sugar-free horchata is gaining world-wide popularity.
Due to the high quality and uniqueness of Valencian chufas (Xufas) they are approved (and protected) by the local Regulation Council assigning to almost 90% of local chufas the certificate of Valencian Denomination of Origin.
Interestingly, in many countries, wild chufas are considered as invasive weeds that in favorable circumstances can rapidly overgrow large swaths of land. On the larger scale tiger nuts are also cultivated in West Africa where they are used for popular snacks or for preparation of non-alcoholic beverage “Kunnu” (Nigeria)
The earliest traces of “domesticated” chufa come from Mesopotamia, where as it seems, the plant was cultivated already some 4,000 years ago. However, it was rather the species cultivated in the region of Chuf in Sudan that found its way to the Iberian Peninsula.
The plant was brought to Valencia in the 8th century AC with waves of Moors establishing their presence in this environmentally “friendly” region. Indeed, the moderate climate and sandy, moisty soil creates here ideal conditions for cultivation of chufas. Together with the plant come also the name “chufa” pointing to its geographical source. Cultivation began in the northern part of Valencia – region today known as L’Horta Nord including the municipalities of Alboraya and Almássera.
Those interested in twelve hundred years long tradition of chufa Valenciana may want to visit the Museum of Chufa located in El Machistre farmhouse. If you are lucky to be in Valencia in the late spring time, the visit to the museum will open in front of you an amazing beauty of the countryside landscape with El Machistre Museum surrounded by the sea of green fields of chufa….
It’s a panorama of mind soothing colors of nature… (it may be hard to believe it exists co close to the tourist-packed, full of life (quite hectic BTW) city of Valencia.
Valencia: El Machistre (Museum of Horchata and Chufa) surrounded by fields of chufa