As the legend goes, a 19th-century Catalan farmer was out experimenting in his fields when he came up with a new kind of longer, juicier green onion, the calçot. In creating the onion, the farmer produced much more than a new vegetable; he also paved the way for the rise of an idiosyncratic, and distinctly Catalan, cultural event. Calçots are not something that is quickly cooked and then put in Tupperware to eat later at work. Rather, they are part of a popular ritual, the calçotada, which brings families and friends together around the table during the winter months to eat the onions.
Why are people in Barcelona so crazy about getting together and eating calçots, which are really nothing more than scorched green onions? Because they are a good excuse to meet up with friends in the countryside or in a restaurant to spend time together; because eating calçots requires a certain skill, and people love showing off to their friends; because it’s funny how you end up with dirty hands and reeking of onions; and, last but not least, because they’re delicious. When it comes to calçots, you always want to eat just one more.
The most famous story about the origin of the calçot says that it was a peasant from Valls, a town in the province of Tarragona in southern Catalonia, named Xat de Benaigues who first developed the cultivar. The word “calçot” comes from the Catalan word calçar (“to shoe” or to cover the stalk of a plant with soil), in reference to the way the scallions are harvested and then replanted under extra soil so that they will keep growing. This process ensures that the traditional spring onion turns into a longer than usual (15 to 25 cm) and more delicate calçot, which is ready for consumption between the months of November and April. Although the calçots that come from Valls are the most prized, and they have an EU Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), nowadays these scallions are cultivated in all of the Alt Camp (a county in southern Catalonia) and the western inland of Catalonia.
The most popular way to cook calçots is to grill them over an open barbecue. Rather than fully cleaning the onions, it’s best to leave some soil on their surface, which protects their outer skin. The calçots are grilled directly over the flames until they became completely black on the outside. (Don’t worry; the best part – the inside – will be still white and clean.) They are typically served wrapped in newspaper to keep them warm and eaten off curved terracotta roof tiles. Calçots must be eaten directly with the fingers; the trick is to hold them by the green leaves with one hand and pull off the burned and blackened outer layer of skin with the other hand. The tender and juicy inner bulb is then dipped in salsa romesco, a special sauce made from dried red peppers, nuts (usually hazelnuts and almonds), garlic, vinegar and olive oil that is typical of Tarragona. Finally, the calçot is ready to be eaten!
Calçotadas typically take place in public barbecues in the countryside, known as merenderos; at rural Catalan restaurants called masias; or in peoples’ homes. The period from January to March sees a number of public calçotadas, mostly held in Tarragona province; by far the most famous calçotada is the one celebrated annually on the last Sunday of January in Valls itself. In Barcelona proper, it is also possible to find neighborhood calçotadas taking place in February and March (generally advertised by the Barcelona City Council or on local websites). While the calçots are the star attraction, the scallions are usually accompanied by botifarras (fresh local sausages made with beef, garlic and some herbs) and grilled meats, all complemented with a good Catalan red wine.
If you can’t make it to a public calçotada, another classic way to eat calçots is to reserve a table at a masia in a Catalonian village. These ancient rural structures, some of which date as far back as the Middle Ages, were once part of wealthy farmers’ homesteads and now mainly serve as countryside restaurants (and/or bed-and-breakfasts), with stone ovens and barbecues, large rooms with tables that can hold big groups, and sometimes additional seating in outdoor terraces and gardens. Masias are not the place for sophisticated food; instead, the focus is on rustic traditional specialties from the region, such as grilled meats, stews and other hearty fare.
Hostal Restaurant Grau, located in the Alt Camp in Tarragona, is situated in the original land of the calçots and its restaurant was one of the first to offer calçots, starting in 1962. Grau uses authentic ingredients – calçots from Valls with a PGI designation – and cooks them in the most traditional way: grilled over a fire made of vine shoots. They also make a tasty homemade romesco sauce, with all-natural ingredients and vinegar from their own cellar.
In Barcelona, many restaurants offering grilled dishes include calçots in their menus during the season. Restaurant Can Manel, in the Sants neighborhood, does not have a kitchen; their menu is entirely cooked on a big grill behind the bar. The calçots, which are brought in from Valls, are grilled over oak wood coals, while the romesco sauce is handmade by chef Pablo and contains three kinds of toasted nuts (almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts) and olive oil from Lleida in western Catalonia. In Gràcia, Can Xurrades specializes in one of the best meats in world, that of the Iberian bull (similar to Japanese kobe beef), but also offers excellent flame-grilled calçots with homemade romesco sauce, which can be combined with a selection of grilled meats or fish.
Whether they are served in a restaurant in the city or in a public barbeque in a field, in a masia in some tiny village or on a grill on the roof terrace of a friend’s house, the best way to eat this tasty scallion is among good company. So in winter, if you catch a whiff of burnt onions in Barcelona, gather up your friends and follow the scent. This is the aroma of a celebration and now is the time to join it.