“500 organic calçots were pulled from the ground today in Tarragona and have been picked up by the messenger service. The butifarras are taking the AVE from Madrid to Malaga, and will arrive on Friday. The arroz con leche will be driven down from Madrid and assembled in Malaga...”
The email read like the official itinerary of a royal visit. Its recipients, however, were not a bunch of photo-crazed paparazzi, but rather a gaggle of hungry gastronomes, eager for their annual taste of the Catalán delicacies that to many might as well be referred to as the Kings of scallions: calçots.
Collected from November to April, the most famous calçots are from the area of Tarragona known as Valls, which was designated with the Indication of Geographic Protection, IGP Calçot de Valls, in 1996. Essentially, calçots are white onion shoots that are pulled up, replanted in another area, and grown partially covered with dirt so as to leave the longer portion of the stems white and edible. Although these delicacies are enjoyed primarily in Cataluña, often at typical large gatherings of family and friends known as calçotadas, over the years their popularity as a unique gastronomic and cultural treasure has led people all over Spain to repeat this enviable tradition. The calçotada that I’ve attended for the past two years, for example, is hosted annually in roving destinations that in the past have ranged from Segovia to Cazorla (Jaén), but the basic premise remains the same: calçots are roasted and turned over an open, wood fire, wrapped in newspaper (to help remove their charred outer layers), dipped in homemade salvitxada or Romesco sauce, and then devoured as quickly as possible with blackened fingers.
While the roasting method of the calçots is important, I’ve been told that it’s the preparation of this pinkish-orange sauce that often distinguishes one calçotada from another. Every family has their closely guarded secret recipe for this incredible concoction and my friends Valentín and Lourdes still won’t reveal theirs. In general, Romesco sauce consists of toasted almonds and hazelnuts, roasted tomatoes and garlic, olive oil, vinegar, parsley, salt and small nyora red peppers – all blended together with a mortar and pestle. The salvitxada differs from Romesco sauce in that it is thickened with toast that’s been rubbed with roasted garlic and dipped in vinegar. Following the rapid and rabid consumption of these delicate and characteristically sweet onions, which are usually eaten standing up while covering ones clothing with a giant bib, the open fire is then used to grill other typical foods like white and black butifarra sausages, morcilla and lamb.
The whole process constitutes a gastronomic ritual in the true Spanish sense – something that I absolutely love about Spain. Groups of family and friends come together with the excuse of preparing and eating a truly unique regional specialty, which is often available for only a few months out of the year. The planning is intense, the preparation exacting and accompanied by bottomless glasses of delicious red wine, and the company unbeatable, with the food tasting all the better for it. I wonder if this is what the nineteenth-century Catalán farmer who is attributed with the discovery of calçots had in mind. On second thought, I’m sure it was.