The Catalan region can claim many originals in its experience, including unique grape varietals, the whole Castellers thing, plus the ability to organise any mass event with the efficiency of a metronome. However, the one thing that encompasses the best of what Catalunya has to offer encompasses a seasonal vegetable, the events and pageantry surrounding it, and the ability to create community along with this vegetable.
Sure, Spain has tomato fights. And bull running. But the negativity that surrounds both during our recent time makes it a challenge to create a positive experience for all. Enter the calçot.
What exactly is a calçot? It is a scallion or green onion. To quote Wikipedia, as we all do,
“Calçots are milder and less bulbous than onions and have a length of between 15 and 25 cm (white part) and a diameter of 1.7 to 2.5 cm at the root. Planted in trenches, like an onion, as a single bulb, and successively increasing the depth of the soil around the stems throughout autumn and winter, they sprout into 4–10 shoots, roughly the shape of small leeks or scallions.”
Its growth and creation are credited to a farmer in the Valls region, and now the vegetable and its growth process is protected as unique to Catalunya under the EU Protected Geographical Indication. It’s the same way Champagne is protected in France. You can’t grow something elsewhere and call it a calçot. And the calçot grown in Catalanya is truly different than its cousins onion/scallion cousins. More sweet. More juicy. More tasty. I love them. In fact, I need some right now.
Leave it to the Catalans to turn it into a massive celebration, and super cool time to do cool food and human towers. It has become “The Calçotada”. And what does one do at a calçotada? First you consume copious amounts of calçots. But they aren’t raw, or thrown in an oven. No, they are grilled on open flame. Then they are wrapped in newspaper to steam. Then you peel off the charred skin (that in itself requires a step-by-step blog) dip the white bottom part into a special romescu sauce, and then deep throat and bite off and enjoy. Along with this is usually LOTS of wine or cava drinking. The calçots are served on terra cotta tiles (the round roof tiles you see all over Spain), still in the newspaper. The traditionalists then consume lamb, sausage, pan con tomate, and of course more wine and more cava. The best part is calçotadas aren’t confined to one particular spot or one particular day, and are enjoyed for several months.
If you go to Valls, where it all started, there is a stupendous festival you can attend, and enjoy a completely authentic Catalan calçotada experience with thousands of other people. The best part about doing Valls, is unlike other touristy places or events, say in UK, Canada or the US, it is affordable, fun, and interesting. The locals here aren’t into gouging you for enjoying the experience. The date for this year’s event is January 27th, and you’ll also get to experience the casteller phenomenon during the festival as well.
Basically, anytime between November and April is the time to enjoy calçots. Restaurants in Barcelona offer a calçotada experience, the B&Bs surrounding Barcelona in the countryside also offer the same, as do so many of the wineries in Penedes, Montsant, Emporda and Priorat.
Here are some of my favourite places to enjoy a calçotada, making Catalunya a great place to visit, even during the winter or early spring:
- Clos Figueras – The restaurant at this Priorat winery offers a calçotada experience. Email or call them to find out dates and availability. This is one of my favourite experiences.
- Albet i Noya – The winery offers a tour and calçotada experience.
- Valls – January 27th is a great day to enjoy a full on huge celebration.
- Celler Masroig – The cooperative in Montsant offers a tour and calçotada. Best to check on dates and availability.
- L’antic Forn – If you can’t get out of Barcelona, this is THE place to do calçots.
If there is one cultural thing you need to do while in Catalunya, instead of drinking beer and hanging out at the beach, it is definitely the calçotada. Maybe you’ll even learn a few Catalan words while you’re at it. Molt bé!