I think the key to really understanding a place is that place’s food. No, seriously. Food brings people together in a way that many others things can’t. People across the globe adore food and love to talk about it. And thank goodness, because this is how I found out about all sorts of local gems. This is how I discovered the beauty of calçots (pronounced kal-sots). Nothing is perhaps more Catalan than a grill smoking with these sweet, decadent onions and slurping them down with a nutty, orange sauce.
What exactly are calçots? They are onions, apparently some variety of a scallion or white onion. Calçots are cultivated in a very particular way to increase the length of the bulb to somewhere between 15 and 25 centimeters. So, essentially, they are very lengthy spring onions.
Calçots are originally from several regions in Spain and France, however the most famous calçots are from Valls in Tarragona (south of Barcelona). They are controlled by a registered EU Protected Geographical Indication, which recognizes the high quality of this product and establishes a set of specific requirements that local farmers must comply with.
During the winter months, roughly between the months of December and March, locals enjoy the calçotada. This only happens in the winter because this is when calçots are in season! A calçotada is a winter barbecue where the calçots are packed tight on a grill and charred. They are then grouped in bunches of around 20 and wrapped in newspaper to keep them warm.
As the calçotada is a barbecue event, most Catalans will travel to the mountains with more open space and fresh air in order to gather tons of friends and family to partake in this annual tradition. Victor has memories of attending calçotadas when he was teenager. The photos above give you an idea of some amateur calç0ts barbecuing. The calçots should be fairly black on the outside, which makes them taste very sweet. This whole process is what produces the most delicious onion the world.
After eating such a heavy meal, people will engage in something called sobretaula (or sobremesa in Spanish). It is the time you spend chatting with others around the table after eating. The idea is you talk for hours and hours while you digest and relax. As you can probably tell, the calçotada is a weekend event meant for not doing much at all.
Calçots in the City
Of course, not everyone can go out to the mountains and grill calçots themselves. Luckily, many restaurants in the various towns and cities in Catalunya offer a calçotada menu. I’ve been lucky enough to try calçots and two different restaurants in Barcelona. My favourite of the two is L’Antic Forn in the Raval. The staff are extremely friendly and there quite a few characters. They are down to earth and are truly passionate about what they do. They also will tell you all about the calçots season and how the crop is faring this year.
Expect a giant pile of calçots to arrive at your table, usually wrapped in newspaper or aluminum foil. Critically, calçots are eaten with salsa de calçots which can mean one of two sauces: Romesco or Salvitxada. You hold the onion by the stalk and with your other hand slide the burnt outer layer off. The charred outside skin is discarded, and the white bulb part at the bottom dipped in the sauce and eaten. The cooked bulbs end up sweet, creamy, tender and smoky.
And there you have it! If you ever find yourself in Catalunya when calçots are in season, you must try the calçotada menu. It truly is a unique experience and something you will talk about for years to come. Calçots are truly special to me and I look forward to each chance I get to taste their deliciousness.
What do you think? Do you want to try calçots?