Catalunya has many traditions that revolve around food. It is one of the many reasons this food-o-phile is so enamored with this region. We are currently in peak calçot season – which usually begins in mid to late January and runs through early spring. A calçot (in catalan the letter “ç” is pronounced for all intent and purposes like an “s”) is a type of green onion that is much larger than a scallion but much smaller than a leek. They typically grow in the southwestern part of Catalunya – in the province of Tarragona. Though there is some dispute around the origins of this tasty treat, the generally accepted tale is that it was first grown by Xat de Benaiges, a peasant farmer from Valls at the turn of the 20th century. He is said to be the first to plant the green onion and cover it with dirt so that a greater portion of the white part remained edible. This farming technique is known in catalan as calçar hence the name calçot.
Every year, Catalans (and others in the know like me and now you) celebrate the mighty calçot with a calçotada. This is a social food gathering where friends and family gorge on food and wine to their heart’s content. Unlike Thanksgiving, which happens only once a year, calçotadas are held throughout the season. You need not travel all the way to Tarragona (though I highly recommend you do – its beautiful!), as calçotadas take place all over the region of Catalunya, including the city of Barcelona.
The first course of the meal is the reason we are here – the calçots. The green onions are cooked over an open flame until tender and then served with a special sauce known as a salvitxada or romesco sauce. The sauce is a blend of tomatoes, vinegar, olive oil, garlic, almonds, herbs and spices. Each region and even each restaurant will have its own special way of preparing it. In my opinion, it is the salvitxada which really makes this a culinary delight.
Once the calçots are brought to your table, the fun begins. There is an art – a messy art – to properly eating a calçot. Luckily you are provided with a bib so you don’t make a total mess of yourself. 1. Hold the calçot on both ends and pull it apart to remove the hard outer layer and reveal the tender white part. 2. Dip the fleshy goodness in the romesco sauce. 3. Tilt your head back and gobble up the calçot. 4. Repeat until you can’t have any more – then have one more! I usually just keep eating until I run out of sauce – which on average is 10-15 calçots.
The calçotada of course does not end there. I did say that was the FIRST course. Next comes the meat and sides. The Catalans, wisely take advantage of the barbecue to grill up all sorts of meats – pork, lamb, chicken, and – botifarra or sausage. Personally, I am a fan of the botifarra negra or blood sausage. If you can get over the whole blood thing, its actually quite flavorful. They will also grill bread to make the famous pa amb tomàquet or toasted bread rubbed with garlic, oil, and tomato. Sides vary from grilled artichokes, baked potatoes, to my favorite – mongetes – a type of white bean prepared with garlic. Throughout the meal, the wine is flowing – as is the conversation and laughter. It is a wonderful way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
Finally, don’t forget to save room for dessert. One popular option is the traditional crema catalana – which is similar to the French crème brûlée. At this point they will also pop a bottle of cava to toast the end of a wonderful meal. If you are stuggling to stay awake after all the food and drink, you can order a café to end your meal or a carajillo (coffee with whiskey) to continue the party. (note: coffee is usually had after dessert not with dessert like in America). Alternatively, this is also a perfect time to take a siesta.
If you find yourself in Barcelona or anywhere in Catalunya between January and early April, and are sad you can’t go for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea, do not fret. You will have the unique opportunity to pay tribute to the mighty calçot. With prices starting at around 30€ – all food and drink included- a calçotada is quite the bargain. Bon profit!
Final Note: A calçotada is very much a regional tradition. You will NOT be able to find this anywhere in Spain – only in Catalunya (Catalonia).