Cultural Fundamentals: Els calçots
Last week we gave you a taste of what a calçot is by way of a video featuring Chef Anthony Bourdain, reveling in green onion goodness at a traditional calçotada. With that you might be asking: why green onions? Why do they eat so many of them? Why is this so important?
First off, food in general is a reason to celebrate here in Catalunya. There are “festas” for almost any type of ingestible substance imaginable, and calçots are no exception. But calçots aren’t just any food: they are a symbol of Catalan culinary tradition and a source of cultural pride. Calçots are something to look forward to each year when the season approaches, and a great reason to get together in the outdoors with friends, wine and a few liters of romesco sauce. Contrary to what U.S. imitations of this tradition might lead you to believe, calçots are meant to be eaten outside, preferably close to the lands where they were grown.
Perusing foody boards like Chow.com, I’ve found lots of questions from U.S. foodies about calçots: how to grow them, where to eat them, when to eat them…So I thought a calçot FAQ here in on EatCatalunya might be in order. So here you have it.
What are calçots?
Contrary to popular belief, calçots are not just an overgrown version of regular green onions. They owe their existence to a particular way of planting old onions to create this unique variety that is meant to be charred before eating. The official entity that protects the quality of calçots and promotes the tradition, the IGP (Indicació de Geografía Protegida) Calçot de Valls explains on their website how calçots came to be and how they are planted and harvested:
The “Calçot ” was discovered in the late nineteenth century by a lonely farmer born in Valls known as” Xat of Benaiges ” He began cooking in the embers of the old onion born buds grown specifically to be cooked at this way and he was who managed the sauce we still eat nowadays with some variations.
The cultivation process begins during the last months of the year when the seeds of white onion are planted. When the onion has already germinated and started growing, it is planted in a more appropriate land, where it will continue growing. It has to be waited for head tipping as any other normal onion. At this time (summer time), it is rooted off again and it is kept for several weeks until the top is removed and buried again. The onion has hardly buried and showing the whiteness of the plant outside. There is an agricultural precept that says “the onion must heard the bells,” referring to the plant must be buried very little. According to the farmers, it is best to plant “calçots “” during old moon. As the plant grows, it is necessary covering by ground, operation to be repeated several times during the growing process. The ” calçots” are preferably collected between November and April.
Where can I get calçots?
As mentioned above, Valls is the calçots capital. Valls is also the capital of the comarca of Alt Camp, which is located about 12 miles from the city of Tarragona. While Valls is the center of the calçot world, during calçot season you can get them all over Catalunya. Calçots can be purchased to be cooked in almost any fruit stand, market or supermarket in Barcelona during this time, and restaurants all over the region start putting calçots on the menu, as well offering calçotades on the weekends for large groups. (Coming soon: a list of restaurants in and around Barcelona for getting your calçot fix, but if you are in the Valls area, the city’s Chamber of Commerce offers a list of recommended restaurants for calçots on their website.)
The cooking process requires removing the grill of a fire two or three times to turn to the “calçots” one by one. Once cooked, when the tip is soft and are completely black on the outside, they are kept wrapped in newspapers to keep them warm.
As they must be eaten warm, the “calçots” are presented in the table still wrapped and placed in the concavity of a tile. Diners are prepared for the enjoyment of them, each one with their corresponding bib for not stained, with the sauce terrine well filled, and a slice of bread that serves as an accompaniment and also serves to collect the sauce that can be poured eating. Traditionally, “calçots” are eaten standing, and the amount will depend on the experience and the hunger of the guests, but is common to eat between 25 and 30 “calçots”.
It must be pointed out that I think you have to be Catalan to be able to consume so many calçots, not because they aren’t delicious, but because they are almost always accompanied by massive amounts of heavy grilled meats, such as botifarra sausages, steaks and the like. I myself have never been able to eat more than about half that much.
Also notable is massive amounts of wine will be consumed, preferably from a porró. This is mandatory. But it is not because of this that a bib is worn. Yes, a bib, like in lobster restaurants. The bib is because of the particular way that calçots must be eaten: dipped in tons of romesco, held in the air over a tilted back head and lowered into one’s mouth. This is a messy affair, but so very worth it. Check out the video below for a demonstration:
As seen in the video, always remember to “undress” the calçot, removing the charred outer layer before consuming.
For a calçotada on steroids, and only if you are really ready to go nuts with this, get down to Valls at the end of January for the Gran Festa de La Calçotada. A mere 6 euros will get you 12 calçots, a dish of romesco, a bottle of Valls red wine, bread, a cloth bib, and an orange and roasted hazelnuts for dessert. What a deal!
What about the sauce?
Lately I’ve been seeing a proliferation of romesco sauce on U.S. menus. I’m not sure where this came from and why it seems that they are putting it on everything these days, but here romesco has some specific dishes that it goes on and calçots is one of them. In Catalunya you can buy a decent jarred romesco made by a company called Ferrer for when you are feeling lazy, but it’s best to make your own. There are tons of different recipes — some with more or less of any given ingredient — but we’ve got a standard one for you in our recipe section.
I think that about covers it for a calçot primer. Got more questions about calçots and calçotades? Contact us at info (at) eatcatalunya.com and we’ll answer your questions Q&A style. Bon profit!