Anyone who’s been in Barcelona or anywhere around Catalonia between November and March is likely to have encountered the words calçots and calçotada.
A calçot is an onion that has been grown following a precise technic to ensure a long and thin shape. More about the calçots onion coming up next.
So, calçotada is a barbecue or a feast of calçots. Barbecue of onions? Well, that sounds weird, right? But it’s much more than that!
Calçotada is a distinct Catalan tradition, a festival of authentic local food, where people have tons of fun eating and drinking wine together. The calçotadas are usually set in the countryside, in a courtyard or a farmhouse – but you will also find calçotadas in every neighborhood of Barcelona and Catalonia during the peak season in January and February.
Regardless of the major impact this foodie ritual has on Catalan society, the vast majority of the travelers visiting Barcelona don’t get to know what it is.
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 wintertime when the city is transformed into the ideal winter destination.
Throughout the colder season, the abundance of references to the calçots intrigues our fellow travelers and the questions are inevitable.
Here we break down for you the essential information about the origin of calçots and what this is all about.
A brief history of the calçots and calçotada
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 peeled the onions and realized how tender and tasty the inside layers were.
At 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. But the reputation of the original calçots and calçotada 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.
What’s so special about the calçots?
A calçot is a type of onion – a really long onion!
The idea behind the process of growing calçots is to avoid the widening of the onion bulb. 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.
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.
Now that you know what are calcots, let’s dig a little deeper…
How do you cook calçots?
The cooking of the calcots is done in the traditional barbecue style, but a few specific refinements apply… Ideally, the fire should be made with dried Catalan vine shoots. Said to provide the perfect fire and the 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. The roots should not be cut off since they will burn out completely during the cooking while 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.
We can describe the taste of the calçots as sweet and full-bodied. 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!
How do you eat calçots?
Some will say that the proper way to eat calçots is standing up. However, 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 the calçot firmly 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.
An average “calçotaire” eats between 20 and 35 calçots. This 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!). The most popular calçotada still takes place in Valls at the end of January. It’s called La Gran Festa de la Calçotada.
What does a calçotada include?
Besides the calçots, a calçotada also includes a second main dish. Composed of typical Catalan grilled 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 traditional sauce for calçots known as salvitxada or romesco sauce. A mixture of toasted almonds, hazelnuts, fried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and salt. The proportions vary accordingly to each “family secret”. The salvitxada dipping is necessary on each and every calçot!
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.
Where to eat the real calçotada in Barcelona
If you want to eat the real thing, many restaurants are serving delicious calçots. Down below is a list of our favorite restaurants for calçots in Barcelona:
Nou Can Marti, on the Tibidabo hill.
Restaurant Mussol, with several establishments around the city.
Grup Travi Restaurants is also a food chain with many restaurants around the city.
Knowing now that you are a foodie, we have another Catalan foodie experience you absolutely must not miss! And if you wish to try a true calçotada away from the city, contact us – we’ll arrange an unforgettable afternoon for you and your friends in the beautiful countryside.