FOUR OF US PATTERED DOWN THE LANE IN THE SOFT HAZE OF A SUNDAY AFTERNOON. Kitchen towels hanging from a balcony clothesline fluttered in the breeze and flowers stretched toward the ground from windowsill planters. My friend Mariajo and her parents, all natives to the Secastilla area, huddled close under an umbrella. We dodged small puddles, our hands busy with trays of bakery-fresh pizza, a big pot of tender pork that had been cooked in milk and—most importantly—salsa de calçots.
We were headed to a calçotada, and although this one would be relatively small and we wouldn’t perfectly adhere to every tradition, we were going to inject a bit of life into that dreary afternoon. We would gather around a table covered in newspaper and consume dozens of charred spring onions until our fingers were black from soot. We would drench the calçots in their special sauce, throw our heads back and wind them down into our mouths. And in doing so, we would be taking part in a Catalan tradition that is more than a hundred years old.
In the small Catalan town of Valls, a peasant farmer called “Xat de Benaiges” was—as the story goes—the first to replant already-harvested garden onions for a second stint of growth. This time, he’d cover them completely with soil so that the stem would grow long and remain white and sweet. That was in 1898. Today, this modest vegetable is at the heart of colorful traditions of feasting and celebrating, drawing thousands of people to the Catalan region each year.
Calçotadas take place between January and March, roughly, and are hosted by families, restaurants and at festivals. The largest and most prominent of which is on the last Sunday of January in Valls, where it all began. You know the place; they’re also famous for their human towers. Thousands gather to see the calçots grilled over flaming vine shoots, wear bibs, drink lots of wine from the porron and to take part in a delightfully messy affair.
Although we were a smidge west of Catalonia in the Aragon region, our host, 39-year-old Antonio Rabal Almazor, prepared the calçots in the traditional way. Ten months earlier he planted onion seeds, harvested the fully grown vegetable a couple months later, let them “rest” for several weeks, then replanted them in September. The process requires expertise, time and at least a little bit of agricultural intuition.
“If you want to eat well, you have to learn to cook well. And everything tastes better when you grow it yourself,’’ Anotonio said. “Sure, you can buy lettuce at the grocery store, but it is nothing compared to lettuce fresh from the garden. Have you ever had lettuce fresh from your own garden?’’ He closes his eyes and kisses the tips of his fingers. ‘’Delicious!”
Antonio’s family has lived and farmed in Secastilla long enough that identifying an exact year of origin—or even an exact century—is difficult, but he guesses they’ve been around since the 1400s or 1500s. He and his vigorous 80-year-old father continue to care for a patchwork of land surrounding the village, which includes acres of cereals, almond trees, olive trees and grapevines. They also cultivate a couple of vibrant kitchen gardens where they grow bigger-than-your-head onions, zucchinis that you could take to bat, and beautiful tomatoes, among lots of other things.
About six years ago, Antonio attended his first calçotada in a nearby village and decided he’d like to plant some of these special onions for himself.
“When I decide I like something, I grow it,” he said. “I’m not attached to the tradition of calçotadas. That’s a Catalunyan thing and we’re in Aragon. I just really like eating calçots.”
His first harvest was plentiful, and he and two of his coworkers built big bonfires on Friday afternoons and spent hours grilling, eating and drinking.
“We probably only worked two or three hours those Fridays,” Antonio confesses with a grin. “We were too excited about eating calçots.”
Calçots from Valls have an EU Protected Geographical Indication (like grapes from the Champagne region of France or cheese from Parma, Italy) and are highly regarded in Catalonia. But to be able to see the spot where the onions grew and to eat with the person who grew them makes for a special meal.
That Sunday, a column of smoke twisted up into the dull sky from Antonio’s backyard garden plot. A clamped metal grilling basket stuffed with the onions sat atop a mound of dried grapevines, their green tops fanning out around the edges.
When the calçots were charred black and ready to come off the flame, we transferred bunches of about 20 into sheets of newspaper and rolled them up into steamy packages. Traditionally, they are then placed—newspaper and all—into curved terracotta roof tiles, but we unwrapped our onions directly on the table. At a calçotada, casual, messy gusto trumps all else.
Antonio herded us from the drizzly garden upstairs to the dining room table, which was set and ready for feasting with grilled sausages, bottles of red and rosé wines and a roll of paper towels. Big bowls of salsa de calçots flanked the bundled onions and we were all given a lesson in how to 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. Next step, drag the calçots through the sauce, making every effort to collect as much of the salsa as possible.
The two nights leading up to our Sunday afternoon calçotada, Mariajo painstakingly and lovingly prepared the salsa de calçots in the traditional way. She spent hours at her cozy kitchen table grinding almonds, hazelnuts and smoky ňori peppers in a mortar and pestle and allowed time for the sauce to sit and the flavors to meld. Not a step was hurried. The result of her efforts was a thick, burnt-orange-colored sauce with a nutty and slightly tangy taste. Paired with the bright spring onion and the smokiness of both components, every mouthful told a story.
We ate and we ate and we ate. We ate until our fingers were black and our glasses were fogged over with smudgy fingerprints. We ate until we’d emptied every bottle and crumbs crunched under our elbows on the table. We enjoyed hours of ‘’sobremesa,’’ which is that lovely chunk of time when everyone relaxes and talks at the table before clearing the dishes and moving on to whatever’s next. We were popping candied almonds, but dessert at a calçotada traditionally includes oranges, Catalan crème (which is basically crème brûlée) and cava, Spain’s version of Champagne.
Although kissing someone new after hours of eating onions will never constitute perfect timing, that is exactly what I did. With our host, in fact. Something about the tradition of the meal, the view, the wine. About a man who would go to all that trouble just to grow an onion. So I’m in Spain now. And just a week ago we tilled the earth and buried fully grown onions deep in the soil. Ten lovely rows of them to harvest, char black and serve at a table covered in newspaper.