In the windy coastal region south of Barcelona, surrounded by the wide vineyards of Baix Penedès, entire families are decked out in winter gear and ready to eat … some salad!
In the late 19th century, the word xató (pronounced “sha-TOH”) first appeared in writing in the Catalan press. Just as the name for the dish paella is borrowed from the name of the pan that is used to prepare it, xató originally referred to a sauce, but is now the name for a specific salad preparation. Practically unavoidable in the towns of Baix Penedès, Alt Penedès and Garraf (sub-regions that lie between the provinces of Barcelona and Tarragona), xató is surprisingly rare on restaurant menus in Barcelona proper, just under an hour away.
At its most basic, xató is a composition of escarole at the peak of its season with salt cod, tuna, anchovies and olives, dressed with a thick, nutty, flavor-packed tomato-based dressing – xató, similar to romesco or salvitxada. However, the variations of ingredients and flavors are endless, depending heavily on where you live and your family’s distinctive traditions.
The basic xató sauce is a thick paste, created by mashing almonds, hazelnuts, ñora peppers, fried bread, guindilla pepper, roasted onion, garlic, tomato, olive oil and vinegar in a ceramic mortar with a pestle. Regional (even micro-regional) varieties abound: In El Vendrell the garlic is roasted, while in Calafell the garlic is raw. In Sitges, cooks employ fried bread, while in Vilafranca del Penedès they use “Maria Biscuits,” a brand of sweet tea biscuits famous throughout Europe. Sometimes, the anchovies are salted and sometimes they are pickled in vinegar (boquerones). The bacalao (salt cod) can be desalted, marinated or smoked. There is one constant, however: Arbequina olives, the pride of Catalonia, are always present.
La Ruta del Xató, which celebrated its 18th season in 2015, is a scenic chain of five towns and villages in the regions of Baix Penedès, Alt Penedès and Garraf, where residents devote themselves to keeping Catalan tradition alive and well. This “Xató Route” (more of a six-month-long gastronomic celebration than a one-day salad crawl, as the name might imply) leads local families and city day-trippers through expansive vineyard lands, along idyllic Mediterranean beaches and into the heart of some of southern Catalonia’s most charming medieval hamlets.
The etymology of “xató” is generally accepted to have sprung from the perennial winter tradition of tasting the wine from the previous harvest for the first time. On the second Sunday before Carnival – for which the town of Sitges, a central player in the xató tradition, has become internationally famous – the barrels are breached and vi novell (“new wine”) is passed around with glee. The verb in Catalan for tapping these wine barrels is aixetonar (the root of the word “xató”), and from this much-anticipated agricultural traditional, a salad that mixes the bounty of the winter garden and the sea was born.
Xató season runs from November to April each year, with xatonada populars as the main events: Virtually the entire town participates in these one-day xató celebrations. (In Catalan, that “-ada” ending tips you off that a fabulous feast is on its way: calçotada for calçots, botifarrada for sausages and mariscada for seafood.)
At the xatonada popular in El Vendrell, the town that bears the title “The Cradle of Xató,” the day began early. By 10 a.m., the 10 teams of xatonaires had long been preparing their salad components when the starting bell of the 29th “Master of Xató” contest sounded. As the chefs labored, the cold February wind blew in hard off the open vineyard land surrounding El Vendrell, toppling tables and upsetting towers of local goat’s milk cheeses and cured meats arranged for the food fair that always plays a starring role in these annual village gatherings. In addition to xató, fine cured meats and cheeses, townspeople and visitors could shop for local honey, freshly baked bread, traditional pastries and dozens of olive varieties along El Vendrell’s tiny pedestrian Rambla.
By 11:30 a.m., local volunteers began passing out the 2,200 plates of xató that the city hall had prepared, accompanied by the traditional truita de mongetes (Spanish omelet of egg and white beans). Each festivalgoer pays €7 for one salad ticket and one wine ticket (best to go with two friends, because three wine tickets equals a bottle).
Also a highlight of the day was the Exhibició de Xatonaires Infantils, an event that local youngsters prepare for each year, with schools going as far as to teach students about the history and importance of xató within the standard class curriculum. Before this charming event, children were invited to spin the “Wheel of Xató,” which clicked away until finally coming to rest on an image of one of the main salad components – undoubtedly the first time we have ever seen a child so excited to win an onion or a head of escarole! By 1 p.m., the winner of the title “Master Xatonaire” was announced; this year, the honor went to Joan Anton Álvaro, for the second time. Upon receiving his award, Álvaro’s comments cut to the core of why xató is treasured by his community: “It showcases the ingredients and products of the region and keeps tradition alive,” he said. “There’s no secret – just using prime ingredients and a bit of love and care in preparation. And,” he added with a grin, “I used apple vinegar this year to be a bit different.”
Beginning in 1998, with superstar Catalan chef Ferran Adrià himself, the Ruta del Xató has always had an official ambassador who leads cooking demonstrations, shares recipes and generally helps to promote this small region’s gastronomy and culture to the culinary world at large. In 2015, chef Fina Puigdevall (owner of the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Les Cols in Olot, Girona) joined the long list of famous Catalan chefs, including Carles Gaig (2000), Carme Ruscalleda (2010) and Joan Roca (2011). Fighting the wind in El Vendrell, Fina demonstrated to a rapt audience a variety of creative ways to prepare and present both traditional and modern iterations of the town’s star dish.
In Vilanova i la Geltrú, Vilafranca del Penedès, El Vendrell and Calafell, festivals and feasts start in November. Sitges did not host a special day this season. However, locals made up for it with their own impromptu celebrations in the streets of this charming seaside town. Winter in Sitges is slow (except during Carnival), making this season an interesting one for exploring the picturesque streets in the town center without fighting summer crowds. Even without an official xatonada popular, Sitges and all the other participating towns have many restaurants offering a “Menú de Xató” for between €10 and €40.
To discover this little kingdom where salad is the star, explore the full list of events, restaurants, activities, winery visits and more at the official Ruta del Xato website: www.rutadelxato.com.
(photos by Sam Zucker)