I got curious about calçots when a Catalan philosopher nudged me in their direction several seasons ago. Impossible, he inferred, for any self-respecting foodie to go through life without having experienced the joyous festivals (calçotadas) that revolve around them every winter throughout Catalunya.
What are they? A calçot is a particular kind of onion which originated in the vicinity of Valls, a small town north of Tarragona. A lonesome farmer with time on his hands came up with an imaginative system of cultivating onions so that they sprout many heads like a Medusa, followed by earthing up to blanch and tenderise them.
The secret life of the calçot begins in mid-winter the year before harvesting, when the onion seeds are sown under cover. Once they’ve germinated, they’re transplanted to garden or field and allowed to grow on as normal, forming a nice chubby bulb at the base. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be the end of the onion’s short life. It would be dug up and pressed into service for a Catalan sofregit (a delectably jammy concoction of onions, tomatoes and other vegetables) or a samfaina (a classic stew of aubergines, peppers and onions).
But the calçot is no ordinary onion. Once the bulb has formed – it’s now midsummer – they’re lifted, the tall green shoot is cut short and the truncated onions are laid to rest in a cool, dark place (a good idea in Spanish midsummer, even if you’re not an onion). At summer’s end the tops of the bulbs are summarily sliced off and the onions are set in the earth once again, not too deep and barely covered with soil so “they can hear the church bells ring”, according to local lore.
Within a short time, six or seven vigorous shoots emerge from each decapitated onion bulb. The sprouting onions are carefully and persistently earthed up with a ‘boot’ (the verb ‘calçar’ means to get booted up, hence calçot) of heavy reddish Catalan earth. This blanching step produces the prized long, tender, succulent white shoots. By year’s end when the freezing tramuntana begins to blow down from the Pyrenees and the pruning secateurs come out in the vineyards, it’s time to dig up the calçots again. The calçotada season is declared open.
Of course a calçotada is much more than just an onion feast. It has all the right Saturnalian/Bacchanalian elements necessary for banishing late-winter blues. It’s an antidote to the excesses of Christmas, and a last blast before the (once customary) privations of Lent. As the season advances, it becomes an early spring ritual that answers the body’s craving for sharp, astringent flavours after the stodge and tedium of winter food. Above all, it’s the perfect pretext for a bunch of Catalans to get together with a (generally huge and boisterous) group of friends, tuck into some robust food, throw back some local wine and have a jolly good moan about the madrileños and their refusal to countenance the idea of Catalunya’s independence, or the parlous state of the regional rail system.
Calçotadas spring up all over the place any time from January till Easter. The spiritual home and nerve centre is Valls. Every year at the end of January the town stages a lively Festa, featuring street parades with oom-papa music, colourful floats, drumming – and those jaw-dropping, typically Catalan constructions called castells, human towers in which several layers of strapping young men hoist themselves onto one another’s shoulders, crowned finally by a small child who clambers nimbly to the top, to thunderous applause from the assembled onlookers.
But the real stars of the calçotada festival are the onions themselves, complete with their ‘boots’ of rich red earth, proudly displayed on trestle tables in the main square like at the best village produce show. (Since 2001, calçots have had their own IGP or Indicación Geográfica Protegida, meaning that they must be grown in a certain delimited area around Valls and attain specific – and impressive – dimensions.)
On the other side of the square a group of women in traditional dress assemble the almonds, hazelnuts, tomatoes, olive oil and garlic needed for the wondrous sauce known simply as salsa per calçots – with a helpful poster giving the recipe.
The middle of the square is cleared and a patch of sand laid down on which to bed the fire. This is traditionally made from vine clippings – for best results a combination of old, dry wood for fierce heat and new, green clippings for staying power. Once the fire is in full spate, it’s flattened a bit and a wide squat rectangular grill on four short legs (like an old iron bed frame) is lowered into position with the calçots laid on top in neat rows, green tops facing outwards. There’s a fierce hissing and clouds of smoke as the grill is set down over the fire. Soon the onions must be turned and within a few minutes the outside is charred and beautifully roasted, the inside sweetly tender.
To eat calçots you need a ferocious appetite, scruffy clothes and a well-developed sense of fun. Real enthusiasts only ever do calçots standing up; eating them in restaurants off plates, clad in the capacious bibs and surgical gloves which restaurants increasingly provide, is seen as seriously poncey and fit only for fastidious eaters or posh people from Barcelona (or Madrid).
But for most people, a menu calçotada in a restaurant is probably the most practical option (do a Google search for “menu calçotada” for a list of places serving them in Catalunya at the moment). The charred onions come to the table cradled in a roof tile (which helps to keep them warm) served with lashings of salsa romesco.
You grip one by its green straggly top in one hand and firmly strip the outer burnt layers down to the bottom with the other. Then you dunk your naked calçot in a goodly quantity of salsa romesco, throw back your head jauntily, lower the onion as skilfully as possible to the mouth, and munch all the way up its length to the top.
A final word of advice, if you do decide to go for a menu calçotada, be warned that the calçots are but a prelude to the feast. There are still lamb chops, porky pieces and butifarras (sausages) to come, often grilled on the same fearsome fire, and even a sinfully rich, crackly caramel-topped crema catalana to wrap things up. Bon profit!