AC

Calçots in Catalonia, where they know their onions

calcotsThe ‘calçotada’ is a Catalan culinary ritual like no other – and it is now luring visitors from further afield. Chloe Scott-Moncrieff gets stuck in.

The couples next to me couldn’t contain themselves as they ate. Chatting excitedly, they all wore bibs and gloves, yet there was ash strewn across their table and several had charcoaled chins. Outside the restaurant, amid plumes of smoke, five men in red berets walloped wads of the almighty calçot, unusually saporous spring onions, on to human-sized graelles (grills) with burning vines underneath. Flames leapt up. People took photos.

This was, after all, the calçotada, a Catalonian ritual, once only known in Tarragona province but increasingly attracting people from all over. Why such fanfare over a humble allium? No ordinary specimen, the calçot must measure 15-20cm and is distinctively sweet, cooked on flames. It also has PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status, like champagne. And it is seasonal. Only from December to early May can the calçot fires and the feasting, which date back 100 years, be found in restaurants and homes across the region.

A smattering of adventurous travellers have discovered them, importing the concept to their home countries. But the best place, to which in-the-know Spaniards make a mass pilgrimage, is Valls, a town 90 minutes’ drive from Barcelona.

We were in Casa Felix and, according to my guide, Catalan food expert Rachel McCormack: “This is the epicentre. See all these coach-loads of Spanish people? They’re friends, office parties and families and they all come here for this. They come on Sundays, sometimes Saturdays,” she explained, looking at the sea of 400 bibbed participants. “It’s a special day out.”

This was, after all, the calçotada, a Catalonian ritual, once only known in Tarragona province but increasingly attracting people from all over Spain. Why such fanfare over a humble allium? No ordinary specimen, the calçot must measure 15-20cm and is distinctively sweet, cooked on flames. It also has PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status, like champagne. And it is seasonal. Only from December to early May can the calçot fires and the feasting, which date back 100 years, be found in restaurants and homes across the region.

A smattering of adventurous travellers have discovered them, importing the concept to their home countries. But the best place, to which in-the-know Spaniards make a mass pilgrimage, is Valls, a town 90 minutes’ drive from Barcelona.

calcots1We were in Casa Felix and, according to my guide, Catalan food expert Rachel McCormack: “This is the epicentre. See all these coach-loads of Spanish people? They’re friends, office parties and families and they all come here for this. They come on Sundays, sometimes Saturdays,” she explained, looking at the sea of 400 bibbed participants. “It’s a special day out.”

By now, the couples next to me were consuming vast quantities of the corpulent charred onions on large roof tiles (the tiles being another prerequisite of this messy affair). They were peeling off the black skins and dangling the green insides high above their mouths in an unusually skilled manner, making me feel nervous I might get the etiquette wrong. Thankfully, my neighbour, a convivial chap named Rafael Castells Paris, came to the rescue: “You pick up the calçot with your right hand and pull off the burnt skirt,” he said, pointing to the outer layer. “Then you must dip the calçot in the romesco sauce.”

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