Trans-Iberian

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Conquering the Calçotada conundrum, one blackened onion at a time

Por: | 28 de abril de 2014

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The Catalans are not, by their nature, greedy people. And yet unloose a load of them on a calçotada and all kinds of belt stretching, waste expanding gluttony is guaranteed. 

And it’s not just the greed that makes the calçotada so amusingly depraved either; the filth is a major part of the fun too, as hands, arms, faces and even hair get blackened from the freshly grilled calçots, making a mockery of the small lemon hand wipes and finicky plastic gloves available.

Not for nothing, then, is the  calçotada the king of all Catalan food fiestas. And should you be in Catalonia sometime in-between December and late April I thoroughly recommend you try one.

And yet the whole thing hardly sounds promising. Calçots - as, quite honestly, few people who live south of Tarragona will be able to tell you - are essentially long green onions, who look a lot like leeks and taste a bit spring onion-y. 

Their origin is disputed. The way Catalans go on about them you might assume calçots to be first developed in Roman times by Julius Caesar himself then kept alive by a succession of Catalan gods that stretches to Pep Guardiola, Artur Mas and Ferran Adriá in the present day. 

Instead, the most popular explanation is that they were developed by a peasant farmer from Valls called Xat de Banaiges, who planted the sprouts of garden onions, covering them with earth so the longer stems remain edible (a process known in Catalan as calçar).

But a calçotada isn’t about the calçots anyway. Or not really. Because there’s so much more to it than onions.

There’s the sauce, for a start, the salvitxada, a romesco-esque mix of garlic, tomato, almonds, hazelnuts, ñora (a kind of small, spicy pepper), toasted bread, olive oil and salt, which is so delicious I always struggle not to finish off a good half a pot with my bread in the (disgracefully short) interval before the calçots arrive. 

It’s the kind of thing I would probably eat every day, if I could, but is only ever made to accompany calçots. And I’ve never had a bad one, either, having eaten calçots from Valls to Querol, Sant Sadurni to Sitges.

The ritual of the calçotada, too, is something special. First comes the glass of cava, bread, tomato and garlic and the oh-too-tempting sauce. Polite conversation is advisable at this point as A) it will keep you off the salvitxada for a few vital minutes and B) it will be the last time you look and sound even vaguely respectable for the next few hours.

Then come the calçots themselves, served on terra cora tiles, sometimes wrapped in newspaper. You half expect the titular vegetable to be accompanied by a fanfare of brass or at least a stirring speech until you realise the restaurant has probably served several thousand calçots that day alone. (There are restaurants in Valls, calçots’ spiritual home that seat several hundred at a go during calçot season.)

On to the calçots, then. As you might imagine, there is a knack to eating them, which involves holding the stem with one hand, then peeling off the burned outer layers with the other to reveal delicious virgin vegetable. This is then dipped into the sauce, often doubled in two, to add precious salvitxada-gathering surface area.

Then repeat. And again. And again. 

And so on, really, until you feel like you genuinely can eat no more. Restaurants will, generally, bring you as many calçots as you can handle and any establishment that doesn’t should be viewed with suspicion. I’ve managed about 20+ at a sitting but a real pro should look at at least 35.

Eventually, you give up and, with some relief, pull the blackened plastic gloves from your hands, wondering how so much muck managed to penetrate beneath the plastic exterior. A trip to the bathroom is now advised, where even running water and plentiful supply of soap will be insufficient to get the streaky calçot chars off your once fragrant hands.

This, however, is where the fun really starts, especially for patrons enjoying their first calçotada. Because, as you sit at the table contemplating how incredibly full you are and how you REALLY couldn’t eat any more even if they paid you, the waiter brings in the main course.

Yes, the main course. Didn’t you know? The calçots were only the starter. The main dish is no light relief either: instead it consists of suspiciously sturdy sausage and lamb, with potatoes and lashings of alioli. Just what you wanted after all those vegetables. 

It is at this point, being vegetarian, that I usually start to feel a little pleased with myself. I’ve outsmarted the calçotada conundrum, I think, by skipping the giant meat course. I can sit back, contemplate my belly and get on with digesting the notoriously indigestible calçots while the rest of the party suffers the meat sweats in silence.

Generally my dreaming is then interrupted by a helpful waiter bringing me an alternative main course - some grilled artichokes or escalivada - that someone else has ordered on my behalf. 

I don’t really want it. But I can feel the look of challenge in the waiter’s eye. How can I back down now, me with my meagre 20 calçots and two servings of salvitxada to my name? Norfolk Scottish pride is at stake. And so, reluctantly at first, then warming up like a giant krill-gathering whale, I tuck into my main dish, subduing the warning signs coming from my belly in plentiful red wine.

(It was at about this point, incidentally, during my first Valls calçotada that some of my fellow diners asked about whether my girlfriend was pregnant yet. Coincidence? I can only assume so. But it certainly made me attack my artichokes with a renews, psuedo-manly vigour.)

Eventually, the main course is over and everyone around the table is looking pretty sheepish. That, then, surely must be it? (Please God may that be it.)

But no: there is more to come in the shape of dessert, typically a crema catalana, that quixotic mixture of cream and sugar which normally looks so appealing and more-ish in its nice small dish but today has taken on Everest-esque, Iron Man proportions.

You don’t want it. But you take one nonetheless through sheer pride and force of habit. You’ve got this far, damn it, and you’re not backing down now. I usually then spend the next five minutes trying to palm my crema catalana off on anyone else on the table before giving in and eating two sickly mouthfuls. Then I sit back, exhausted.

Suddenly, a photographer approaches. Through a haze of food you wonder why. You’ve probably never looked worse, full to bursting with food and semi comatose, the burned remains of a lonely calçot smeared across your forehead. But this photographer - did you hear right? - wants to put your picture on a bowl for you to take home.

No way. Except someone in your party has just agreed, on the grounds that it would make a lovely gift for an elderly relative. And so your grandmother will from now on eat her morning cereal off a picture of you looking queasy, slightly drunk and pretty much ready for bed. It’s how she’d like to remember you, after all.

(Quite why photographers only ever seem to do this at calçotadas, I don’t know. Maybe the overstuffed look is in. And yet I’ve never seen it happen anywhere else).

Finally, you ask the waiter for a bill, figuring that such indulgence must have come at a significant cost to your wallet, if only to match that to your gut.

But no. It is €35 a head. And the natty bib you’ve been wearing in an attempt to save your best shirt comes free, to remind you forever more of the price point where you gave up on your once svelte figure.

Bed is now the only place for you. And quickly too because calçots, for all their deliciousness, are highly indigestible and a long, uncomfortable night lies ahead. 

But no matter: as you lie awake that night contemplating your gurgling belly and a stomach that just won’t go down, you can be confident that you have conquered the calçotada. You are, for a day, Catalan to the core. And the fact that that core is demanding Alka-Seltzer is nothing to be ashamed of.

Hay 1 Comentarios

Great article! If you want, you can buy calçots directly to he farmer. Just visit http://www.calsots.com and they will send them to you.

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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