As published in the Tampa Bay Times March 30, 2016.
The newspaper-lined table was a reef of smudged wine bottles, crumpled blue napkins and the discarded skins of calçots (kahl-sotes) a type of onion specially grown in Catalonia, Spain. It was the messy aftermath of a successful calçotada (kahl-soh-tah-duh), a traditional Catalan meal where the green spring onions are cooked over an open flame until their outsides are ashy and black and their insides are steamed and tender.
Hosting the event were five bricklayers from Secastilla, a tiny village in the autonomous community of Aragon, Spain, which shares a border with Catalonia. Using sawhorses and planks of wood, they created a makeshift dining area in a garage used to store tools and construction equipment. Despite the unlikely surroundings, the men had carefully covered the benches with paper and set the table with small plastic cups, bread and salsa de calçots. Cava—Spain’s version of champagne—chilled in an old paint bucket filled with water.
“We may not be in Catalonia, but I know how to grow big, delicious calçots and I know how to cook them. So why not feast on them here?” said Antonio Rabal Almazor, a 40-year-old man local to Secastilla. “Why leave all the fun to the Catalans?!”
Ten months earlier, Almazor planted onion seeds and then harvested the fully grown vegetable a couple months later. He let them “rest” for several weeks, then replanted the bulbs in September, burying them deep in the soil so that the stem would grow long and remain white and sweet.
“I just pulled these out of the ground, right before coming here,” Almazor says about his calçots with unmistakable enthusiasm. “You can cook them over any type of wood, but grapevine branches are the best. They say that they give the calçots the best flavor, and they burn quickly and easily.”
As the story goes, the tradition began in 1898 in the small Catalan town of Valls, where a peasant farmer called “Xat de Benaiges” was the first to replant mature onions for a second stint of growth. Today—over a hundred years later—this modest vegetable is at the heart of colorful traditions of feasting and celebrating, drawing thousands of people to Catalonia each year.
Calçotadas take place between January and March, and are hosted by families, restaurants and at festivals. The most prominent event is “La Gran Fiesta de la Calçotada,” which takes place on the last Sunday of January in Valls, where it all began. Valls is also where the better-known tradition of making human towers originated.
Whether at the grand event or a smaller, more intimate gathering, the onions are always cooked the same way, grilled over an open flame. When they are charred black and begin to “cry,” bundles of about 20 are transferred to newspaper and rolled up into steamy packages. Traditionally, they are then placed—newspaper and all—into curved terracotta roof tiles, but we unwrapped our calçots directly on the table. At a calçotada, casual, messy gusto trumps all else.
Eating the onions requires a little finesse and plenty of appetite. Shouting over and bantering with one another, the bricklayers were happy to instruct. Grasp the inner green tops of the stem with one hand, pinch the charred bottom with the other and slide the slippery white insides out of its sheath. Then drag the onion through the salsa de calçots and wind it down into your mouth. Bibs are commonly worn as a means of protection.
Salsa de calçots—often confused with the very similar romesco sauce that also comes from Catalonia—is a smoky, creamy sauce made from tomatoes, ňori peppers, garlic and almonds. Some add hazelnuts or stale bread.
“I love eating the onions scorched over the fire, but the salsa is the best part,” said 27-year-old Secastillian Esteban Troncales. “You can eat it on anything.”
Longaniza sausage and lamb grilled over the same fire as the calçots are served as a second course, and dessert traditionally includes oranges, Catalan crème (which is basically crème brûlée) and cava.
Calçots from Valls have an EU Protected Geographical Indication (like grapes from the Champagne region of France) and are highly regarded in Catalonia.
“No, mine aren’t any better than the ones from Valls,” said Almazor. “Well, okay, maybe a little. But mostly because I cook them immediately after I take them out of the ground. There’s nothing better than calçots cooked fresh from the earth. I think I could eat hundreds of them.”
Salsa de Calçotes
This is an easy-to-make, versatile recipe that allows for plenty of artistic license. Use as a topper for fish, fold it into rice, slather it on a sandwich or use it as a dip for fries. And remember, in Catalonia no one makes it the same but everyone claims authenticity!
- 1 head of garlic, unpeeled
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled
- 5 ripe tomatoes
- 3 ½ oz of almonds, peeled and toasted
- 1 oz of hazelnuts, peeled and toasted
- 1 cup of olive oil, plus extra for cooking
- 1 slice of dry french bread, toasted
- 1 ňora pepper
- Salt to taste
Soak ňora pepper in water and leave overnight, at least 12 hours. You may need to put a plate or some sort of weight to keep the peppers submerged.
Preheat oven to 350°. Remove stems from tomatoes and cut an X in the bottom. Coat the tomatoes with oil and place in baking pan, X side up.
Cut off the top third of the head of garlic, exposing a bit of the cloves inside. Place on a sheet of aluminum foil, open end up, drizzle with oil and wrap with the foil. Place in a baking pan, separate from the tomatoes.
Place both pans in the oven and cook for about 45 minutes, until the tomatoes are wilting and starting to wrinkle and the garlic is lightly browned and tender. Remove both pans from the oven and let cool.
Remove and discard the tomato skins and peel the garlic. It may be necessary to squeeze the cloves from their skins. Set aside.
Remove the ňora pepper from the water, cut in half and separate the inner meat from the skin, using a spoon to scrape the fleshy bits from the sides. Discard skin and set the rest aside.
In a food processor, begin adding the ingredients one by one and blending each time until well-processed. Start with the garlic, including the raw clove. Next add the almonds and hazelnuts. Then the tomatoes. Slowly add the oil while the food processor is running.
Place the dry, toasted bread in a bowl of water for about 15 seconds. Add it and the ňora pepper to the mixture in the food processor and blend. Finally, salt to taste. The end result will be a rust-colored, thick sauce with a bit of texture; mildly smoky but not spicy in flavor.
A note about ňora peppers: If you have trouble finding them, keep in mind that dry ňora peppers can be purchased online. Or, substitute with a roasted red pepper, two peppadews and an ancho chili. Any mild chili pepper makes a worthy replacement.