Think of some vegetables and you can instantly associate then with a culture. Belgians have potatoes. Brits their beans. Italians tomatoes. For Catalans, it’s the calçot.
It’s impossible to go anywhere in Catalonia between January and March without hearing about a calçot. Restaurants boast the best, green grocers fill their displays, and families eagerly get the wood fire going to grill them. But what are calçots?
A calçot is a type of onion and can be thought of as a cross between a spring onion and a leek. Their flavour is sweeter than a leek and they’re a little fatter than a spring onion. As a result, they don’t have as strong a flavour as you would expect from an onion. And why the fascination with this humble member of the onion family?
Legend has it that the calçot was created by a peasant farmer in the Catalan town of Valls. Instead of allowing his garden variety of onion to grow fat and bulbous the farmer kept layering on soil to encourage the edible part of the onion to grow longer. This agricultural process is called calçar in Catalan, which is where the name calçot comes from.
Calçotadas are events best shared. The barbecue crackles as the wood splinters in the heat of the fire. Friends and family gather in eager anticipation as the calçots cook to charcoaled perfection. When the outer layer is crisp and black they’re wraped in newspaper and set aside for at least 30 minutes to cool. Then they’re placed on their pedestal of a terracotta tile and shared evenly along the large dining table.
It’s time to dig in. Everyone’s busy now, grabbing calçots and sliding off the blackened outer layer. Calçots are bathed in generous helpings of the nutty, sweet, romesco sauce. Heads tilt back and long tender stems of calçot slip into welcoming mouths. The conservative or conscious wear plastic gloves to keep their hands clean but the experience is best without. Hands slime up with the juice of baked calçots. Resist the urge to wipe your hands, you’re only going to get messy again. Outbreaks of outrageous laughter are guaranteed as friends devour dozens of calçots dipped in generous portions of romesco sauce. This is a messy affair, and giant white bibs are mandatory if you want to keep at least some of your clothes charcoal free. And that’s all there is to it.
Well, not quite. After a generous portion of calçots that never seems to end the next course arrives. The Barbecue has been re-purposed and plate after plate of grilled sausage, steak, and lamb begins to arrive. The wine flows just as easily.
The warmth of the festival is felt all round, even though the winter chill can still bite. In all, Calcatadas are a time for celebrating family and friendship around a basic concept of winter barbecuing.