Catalan Spring Onion Feast

The Daily Meal


April 24, 2013

If you don't know calçots, you don't know your onions
Colman Andrews

The calçotada is a late winter and early spring ritual in Catalonia, and especially around the town of Valls, about 10 miles north of the old Roman Iberian capital of Tarragona. A calçotada is a feast built around calçots, which in turn are green onions that are as long and fat as leeks.

To grow this unique form of Allium, large garden onions are harvested when they begin to push out green shoots, then stored in a dark, dry place for about two months. They are then trimmed of their original shoots and small slices are removed from their top half in several places. Then the onions are replanted to sprout anew. This time, earth is packed around them as they begin to protrude — this is the same process used with Belgian endive and white asparagus to keep them from turning chlorophyll-green — so that when they are full-grown, thick, and sweet, at least half of their flesh is white. (The term "calçot" probably derives from "calça," meaning "stocking," a reference to the way the earth covers the onion shoots.)

Nobody knows for sure who first developed this rather complicated process for growing calçots, though local tradition in Valls assigns it to a turn-of-the-century farmer named Xat de Benaiges.

Calçotadas are big communal events, frequently organized by organizations like companies, labor unions, social clubs, and the like, and held at restaurants, social halls, and other public venues. The format is always more or less the same: Calçots are grilled over embers — traditionally, old iron bedsprings were used as grills, and some restaurants still trot these out for the purpose — and then wrapped tightly in newspapers to steam. They're brought to the table in the hollows of terra-cotta roofing tiles (this helps keep them warm) and eaten thus: A calçot is grasped in one hand by its blackened base and in the other by its green top, then the black part is slipped off and discarded. The white end of the calçot is then dipped into a bowl of romesco sauce (sometimes just called salsa per calçots).

The diner tips his or her head back and bites off the sauce-cloaked portion. This is messy work, obviously, and participants in a real calçotada usually wear napkins tucked into their collars — and there is usually a sink or wash basin nearby. Calçot lovers typically consume at least 20 or 25 of the things at one of these events, and competitive calçot eaters (only in Catalonia!) sometimes manage 200 or so in a half-hour's time.

The calçots are just the beginning of a calçotada, though. After the onions come an assortment of meats grilled on the same embers, usually including botifarra (mild pork sausage) and lamb chops with white beans and allioli. Sometimes roast chicken is added to the meal. All this is washed down by plenty of wine, theoretically poured straight into the mouth from a porró, the glass pitcher with a needle-nose spout that Catalans use instead of the leather bota bag utilized for communal wine-drinking elsewhere in Spain.

If a trip to Catalonia isn't on your schedule, the good news is that the Spanish specialty food retailer La Tienda is now selling authentic calçots grown in Oregon, through the end of May. Char them on your grill, then slip off the charred part, and dip them in this classic Tarragona-region romesco sauce.

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