If you’ve never eaten calçots, you haven’t lived. What’s a calçot, I hear you cry. Put at its simplest, it’s a sort of cross between a spring onion and a leek. Every year throughout Catalunya, from (roughly) January till Easter, loads of these distinctive, elongated onions are grilled to a frazzle over fierce fires made from vine clippings and served up with a dangerously addictive sauce based on toasted, ground almonds, hazelnuts, tomatoes, olive oil and loads of garlic.
You can feast on calçots throughout Catalunya pretty much all winter but the biggest and best-known festival is in Valls, a small and otherwise undistinguished town north of Tarragona. It’s famous for its Festa de la Calçotada, staged every year on the last weekend in January.
The streets and squares are thronged with shiny, happy, onion-hungry people, wrapped up against the winter cold. There’s plenty of oom-papa music, drumming, processions, floats – and the obligatory and ultra-Catalan castells when three, sometimes four layers of young men hoist themselves up onto one another’s shoulders to form a human tower, crowned, once the basic structure is firmly in place, by a youngster who clambers nimbly up to the top to rapturous applause from the onlookers.
In one square you’ll find a few trestle tables with prize-winning calçots proudly displayed just like at the village produce show. On the other, groups of women in traditional costume patiently pound toasted nuts, roasted tomatoes, garlic and olive oil to a smooth reddish-orange paste for the famous salsa per calçots, which they proffer for sampling on little crusts of bread.
In an adjoining square, a bonfire of vine clippings (a mixture of old, dry wood and new, green prunings for the best fire) is built over a patch of sand. Once alight, the clippings quickly reach a fearsome temperature. From the sidelines a four-legged rectangular grill arrangement resembling a metal bed frame emerges, completely covered with the trimmed green onions, neatly laid in rows. The grill is set down over the furnace, accompanied by a great hissing and clouds of smoke.
In a matter of minutes the calçots are done on one side. The grill is lifted away, the onions quickly turned and the grill returned to the fire where the onions complete their cooking. The butcher’s shop on the square does a roaring trade in butifarra sausages and lamb cutlets, to be grilled over the fire by seasoned festlers once the onions are done.
You can tuck into your calçots on the street, but most people adjourn to one of the many restaurants in and around Valls – look for a sign outside the door advertising a Menú Calçotada. Be sure to book ahead – these onion feasts are ferociously popular. Once installed at table, you’re equipped with a capacious bib and a pair of surgical gloves – a calçotada is a gloriously messy business. A riotous pile of blackened, frazzled onions appears, cradled in a curved roof tile, which keeps them warm.
You grip the tops, strip off the blackened bits, dunk the trunks in the salsa per calçots, throw back your head and chomp them down with gusto – the guys here are showing the way, in the crowd-pulling calçot-chomping competition to see who can down the most in the shortest time. To follow there are usually tender grilled lamb cutlets and butifarras, and often a rich, crackly caramel-topped crema catalana to conclude proceedings.
For more on this year’s festival in Valls, to be held Sunday 26 January:
Some restaurants serving calçotada menus:
Cal Ganxo, Esglesia 13, 43813 Masmolets
Tel. +34 977 605 960
Lively, molt típic restaurant in tiny hamlet just north of Valls, lunch only, classic calçotada menu
Cal Xim, Plaça Subirats 5, 08739 Sant Pau d’Ordal
Tel. +34 938 993 092
Catalan country cooking in this Penedés restaurant (close to Vilafranca) with superb grilled meats, calçots in season and an award-winning wine list
Mesón del Conde, Pl. Major 4, Sant Martí d’Empúries
Tel. +34 972 770 306
Menu calçotada in winter (and grilled meats and shellfish year round) in pretty, medieval village near L’Escala