Anybody who’s been in Barcelona or anywhere around Catalonia between November and March has probably heard about calçots (the “ç” pronounced as an “s”). Regardless of the major impact this foodie ritual has on the Catalan society, the vast majority of the travellers visiting Barcelona don’t get to know what it is, and most importantly, how to eat it! Quite frankly, there isn’t much mystery behind this local treat: it’s simple, fun and delicious!
Barcelona is a year round destination, so naturally at BrightSide we host a lot of visitors in the winter time too. Throughout this season, the abundance of references to the calçots intrigues our fellow travellers and the question is inevitable. What’s a calçot?
A calçot is really a type of onion – a really long onion! Back in the 19th century, south of Barcelona in the province of Tarragona, a little village called Valls witnessed the birth of this proud Catalan tradition. As the story goes, a peasant known as Xat de Benaiges accidentally burned some onions that he had put on a barbecue. Instead of throwing them out, he pealed the onions and realized how tender and tasty the inside layers were.
We’re not farmers so certainly it gets a bit more complicated, but to keep it simple let’s just say the farming method is somehow similar to the one of growing asparagus. The idea behind this process is to avoid the widening of the onion bulb, and instead, the onion should grow longwise (up to 25cm long), shaping up perfectly for the grill: a long onion will cook evenly, as opposed to a cheeky bulb one that would roast on the outside and stay raw on the inside. In order for the edible part not to turn green, the farmers must continuously add earth on top of the soil where the onions are growing – thus forcing the onion to grow longwise towards the surface. This process is called in Catalan: calçar – a verb meaning literally “putting on the shoe” which is essentially the origin of the name for this food.
In the beginning of the 20th century eating calçots became popular in the region of Valls where families and friends gathered during festive days for what was called calçotadas. As these calçots feasts quickly spread all around Catalonia in the second half of the 20th century, it became more of a formalized type of meal. Today this tradition is known all over Spain and in other parts of the world too, but the reputation of the original calçots from the Valls region seems to be bulletproof! Perfect temperatures, right exposure to sunlight and precise amount of rainfall make up for the best calçots!
The cooking of the calçots is done by the traditional barbecue style, but a few specific refinements apply… Ideally the fire should be made with dried vine shoots – said to provide the perfect fire and finest aroma. Then, the calçots should be laid alongside and both ways from the center of the grid: with the edible part at the center and the leaves towards the edges. As for the roots, they should not be cut off since they will burn out completely during the cooking, whilst keeping the natural onion flavor. Once the calçots are completely grilled on one side, it’s fundamental to carefully turn the grid and cook the opposite side till it’s ready: when the tip is soft and the outer layer is black. To keep the calçots warm, they are usually packed in sets of 12 to 20 and either wrapped with newspaper or laid on terra cotta roof tiles – being the latest a bit more picturesque. Time to eat!
Besides the calçots, a calçotada also includes a second main dish composed of typical Catalan meats like lamb and traditional sausages (morcilla, longaniza and butifarra), the inevitable red wine and commonly the pride-of-the-nation desert: Crema Catalana.
Last but definitively not least on our list, is the making of the sauce for calçots known as salvitxada. A mixture of toasted almonds, hazelnuts, fried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and salt for which the proportions vary accordingly to each “family secret”. The salvitxada dipping is absolutely necessary on each and every calçot!
Some will say that the proper way to eat calçots is standing up, but in most restaurants and family gatherings you’ll find people sitting comfortably at the table. However, make sure to put your bib on: it’s either that or going back home looking like a Neanderthal!
This is a beyond casual kind of meal and truly requires a hands-on approach. First, with one hand you should hold firmly the calçot by the green foliage (the part that stayed outside of the fire on the barbeque) in a vertical position. With your other hand, you must grab the tip of the calçot, press strongly and pull downwards – this will peel the burned layer and keep the good stuff! Now just dip it in the sauce and put it in your mouth! Attention: a fork and knife will reveal you’re a calçot virgin, so make sure to blend in and use your hands! For a quick tutorial take a look at this video from our Youtube Channel.
An average “calçotaire” eats between 20 and 35 calçots, which perfectly explains why calçotadas last for several hours and usually take place on Sundays.
There are many festivities and even eating contests (careful with these, onions are hard to digest – for pros only!), but the most popular calçotada still takes place in Valls at the end of January. It’s called La Gran Festa de la Calçotada.
The calçotada has eventually become a cheerful celebration for winter weekend afternoons, nothing less than an excellent excuse to gather with friends and family to eat, drink, talk and laugh.
This Catalan foodie experience should not be missed if visiting Barcelona during the winter! If you wish to experience a true calçotada just contact us – we’ll arrange an unforgettable afternoon for you and your group.