Do you know your onions? – Susannah digs deeper into the tradition behind this treasured allium

by Susannah Grant posted on 22 March 2024

March means we´re in full calçot season. These giant spring onions are cultivated in Valls, near Tarragona and are enjoyed from Figuerès to Fuengirola.  At this time of year, people drive for miles around Catalunya to enjoy char-grilled stems which are often served in newspaper or on terracotta roof tiles. Once you´ve peeled off the outer part you´re left with a tender gooey stem.

The Annual Fiesta de la Calçotada in Valls

Farmers from the town of Valls in Tarragona were the first to harvest these onions. As the stems began to grow, they piled on earth around the shoots to force them to grow upwards to the surface, a bit like a leek. The name hails from this growing technique as the process is called calçar in Catalán which literally means “to cover the bottom part”. It also serves to keep the subterranean roots snow white in colour. The coveted long spring onion shape ensures a more even grilling than the bulbous variety. 

Every year approximately 55 million of these alliums are harvested from November to May although only 10% originate from the heartland of Valls which is now a protected designated area.

Burning bushels of onions

Legend has it that a 19th century farm-hand called Xat de Benaiges accidentally burned some onions he was cooking on a fire. Eager to preserve the insides, he peeled them, only to discover that the inner layers had reduced down to a tasty unctuous delicacy and the trend took hold.

By the 20th century, the tradition of families and friends gathering around communal barbecues of the calçots from December to May had given rise to the phenomenon of calçotadas. Today this popular ritual is responsible for long queues of cars snaking their way out of Barcelona and Tarragona in search of their favoured blackened vegetable in local masías or farmhouse-type restaurants.

Eating calçots is an art

Eating these wobbly long onions is a bit of an art and bibs or “pitets” are handed out in a mandatory fashion. The onions are not completely cleaned as a little earth protects their outer skin.  You have to hold a ‘calçot’ by the leaf with one hand and stretch out the peel downwards with the other hand.  Calçotadas can last for several hours and usually take place on Sundays as most participants eat as many as 25-35 per head. There are many eating competitions and calçot festivities as far afield as Dublin, London and New York if you haven´t been struck down with indigestion.

Calçots in romesco soup – A creation from the infamous Torres Brothers

Almost as appreciated as the vegetables themselves is the sauce that accompanies them.  Most restaurants up and down Spain serve them with Romesco. Yet the real die-hard aficionados stick to the local salvitxada which is a bit sweeter as it contains dried ñora peppers as opposed to the choricero variety found in Romesco. The other ingredients include toasted almonds and hazelnuts, roast tomatoes and garlic, olive oil, garlic, vinegar and parsley, which can either be ground in a pestle and mortar or liquidised for a smoother sauce.

Some chefs have come up with various innovative versions of these prized scallions such as confit calçots served with a meat and butifarra sausage gravy or even a crunchy calçot tempura dipped in curry sauce in Barra Alta restaurant in Madrid and Barcelona.

Barra Alta restaurant offers a modern twist

I am also a fan of the jarred calçot sauce, made with tomatoes and toasted almonds from most sizeable supermarkets. It goes down very well with fish and grilled meat, especially when accompanied by a chilled beer or copita of fino. On occasions I have been known to adulterate calçots with some tabasco but only because I eat chilli with almost everything.  Apart from the chocolate stash I´m saving for Easter Day.

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