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25 Feb 2022

Spain's 'white gold' super-drink

Spain's 'white gold' super-drink

Gluten-free, sweet and nutritionally dense, tiger nuts are being hailed as a rising "superfood". But in Valencia, Spain, these tasty tubers have been popular for centuries.

Stretching across the drying room in a vast, rippled expanse, the tiger nuts seemed almost like desert dunes. I'd come to Valencia towards the end of their harvesting and found the sight of this immense volume – hundreds upon thousands, perhaps even millions – impressive. Singling one out, however, I was surprised to discover a small, wrinkled form that looked distinctly less inspiring. Where tiger nuts are concerned, it turns out, appearances really are deceiving.

Firstly they're not actually nuts, despite being firm and brown, but tubers of the sedge plant Cyperus esculentus. And in spite of their peculiar misshapen looks, they're considered the ultimate health food. "They're packed full of nutrients like fibre and iron, making them great for gut health, and are gluten and lactose-free too," said Ani de la Prida, who co-founded The Tiger Nut Company in 2016. Rumour says they even boost libido.

Also very moreish (as I've realised), with a creamy texture and sweet nutty aftertaste, tiger nuts have been hailed as a rising "superfood" by Good Housekeeping magazine in the US . Yet in Spain, where they're known as "chufas", these plant powerhouses have been popular for centuries – particularly in Valencia, whose beloved chufa-based drink horchata dates to the 13th Century. So integral is this milky beverage to Valencian culture that, alongside cafes and ice cream parlours, it's served up in its own specialist stores known as horchaterías.

Horchatería Daniel is one of Valencia's most famous horchata spots (Credit: Agefotostock/Alamy)

Horchata is indelibly linked to Valencia's success in tiger nut cultivation, a practice that began in Ancient Egypt (the tubers have even been found buried in pharaohs' tombs) before spreading throughout wider North Africa; from there it was introduced into Valencia following the Muslim conquest of Hispania in 711. Cultivation took hold in L'Horta Nord, part of a vast agricultural region on the city's outskirts, known in English as "The Orchard". It now takes place across 19 towns in the area, where the sandy soil coupled with Valencia's temperate climate makes for ideal growing conditions. About 5.3 million kilograms of tiger nuts are produced here, 90% of which are covered by a special Denomination of Origin status designed to regulate quality among regional products in the European Union.

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