It seems crazy that anyone could be addicted to onions.
Don’t get me wrong, I love onions. The smell of frying alliums is one of my favourite kitchen scents!
But no one loves onions as much as the Catalans. Go to Catalonia in late winter and you’ll see for yourself! This is the season of the calçotada, the annual scallion festival that takes Spain by storm.
The first time I saw a calçotada, I fell in love. In love with the onions, in love with the event, and in love with the weird sensation it gave me, a mix between amazement and a fear that eating that amount of onion could not be healthy.
But just what are calçots? Why do locals lose their minds over them? And why is everyone wearing a bib and drinking from a lamp?
A very special onion: What is a calçot, really?
Can an onion be sexy?
I never would have thought so, but calçots make me wonder. These special scallions are a staple on Catalan tables every winter, and their very presence is enough to create a feeling of fiesta.
To picture a calçot, imagine a scallion. Now, make it longer. Make it sweeter, fleshier, and so much more, and you have a calçot. They’re a type of green onion native to Catalonia, and locals have been eating them for over a hundred years.
Farmers from the town of Valls were the first to harvest these sexy scallions, planting green onion bulbs in parallel trenches. As the stems began to grow, they piled on dirt around the shoots. What do you get? An onion with a long, sweet, white stem, perfect for grilling.
In fact, this method of piling on dirt is so crucial to the veggie’s success that its even the source of its name! In local Catalan, calçar means to pile dirt.
How do you eat calçots? (It’s harder than it sounds).
You’d think that, being an onion, you might have a pretty good idea of how to eat a calçot. You’d be wrong.
First, we have to start with the cooking. You can’t just cook a calçot any old way. There’s a tradition to everything in Spain and calçots are no different.
Calçotadas are outdoor events, taking advantage of the sunny weather of a Spanish February. Locals flock to the country side and have a barbecue of their favourite scallions, grilling them over a fire of grape vine branches.
When the calçots are charred and black, they’re taken off the grill and wrapped up in old newspapers. The residual heat steams them until they’re soft and fleshy, ready to be guzzled down by the kilo.
Now comes the tricky part. When you’re handed a plate of steaming calçots, you can’t show hesitation. The onions will see this as a sign of weakness, and reject your feeble attempts at consuming them.
To eat a calçot properly, pinch its top with your non-dominant hand. Use your other hand to peel away the blackened skin from top to bottom, like a banana.
Now dunk the calçot in salvitxada. Like romesco, the other prized Catalan sauce, this chunky dip is made of almonds, garlic, and peppers. Its smoky tang is the perfect accompaniment to the sweet scallion!
Still holding its top, lower the calçot into your mouth from above. Take a bite and dip it back in the sauce!
Just remember to dress the part. Everyone at a calçotada wears bibs to catch the falling drops of salvitxada as they swing the calçots towards their mouths. The more mess, the better! Most Catalans wear their stained bib like a badge of honour.
What’s a calçotada?
You know how to eat a calçot: great!
But where can you go to test out these new skills? Well, to eat calçots properly, you have to go to a calçotada.
This is part onion binge, part carnival, where Catalans gather in fields and restaurants to gorge on scallions and celebrate the coming of Spring. Calçots are served as the first course of a daytime feast, so make sure not to fill up!
But like all good things in Spain, a calçotada first starts with vermouth. Along with salty snacks, the hora del vermut is the best way to get the saliva flowing and stomach growling before the scallions come rolling in.
After the calçots come plates of meat, full of Catalan butifarra sausages piled as high as the eye can see. Alongside pork chops, lamb, and grilled rabbit, this is enough protein to put you in a coma, if the onions didn’t do that already!
Hopefully you’ve saved some space, because dessert is going to come before you have time to recover. If you’re lucky, it might be authentic crema catalana (Catalan crème brûlée) along with sweet wine and coffee, or simple sweet almond cookies.
But surely there’s more wine than that? This is Spain, after all; a country with more vines than anywhere else in the world. And yes, not only is there more wine, but a calçotada also comes with it’s own way of drinking wine.
Meet the porrón.
How do you use a porrón?
At first, using a porrón seems difficult. It’s only later you realise that it’s almost impossible!
These wine vessels look like the lamp Aladdin rubs to summon a genie. And just like those lamps, there a wonderful things inside these porrones! A porrón is a traditional Catalonian drinking vessel, perfect for the Spanish way of eating and socialising.
By pouring wine from the spout into your mouth, the entire table can share from the same porrón without their lips ever touching the bottle. It’s like a watering can that spurts a single stream of delicious wine.
It takes skill to drink from a porrón without spilling the wine. Luckily, you’re wearing a bib at a calçotada and can afford to make some spills!
Where to eat calçots in Barcelona
While most calçotadas happen in the Catalan countryside, there are a few you can visit around Barcelona. They might not be as traditional as the ones out in the vineyards, but they’ll definitely be enough to satisfy those scallion cravings.
If you have time to take a quick trip outside the city, here are my favourite masias (farmhouse restaurants) for an authentic Catalan countryside calcotada:
- Restaurante Can Roca (Can Roca, s/n, Tiana). No, not that Can Roca. This one is far more affordable, and far more traditional. They also grow their own calçots!
- Can Cortes (Avinguda de Can Cortès 36,).
- Masia Can Portell (Carretera de Vallvidrera, Km 6). Charred scallions just 12 kilometres outside Barcelona? It’d be crazy not to go!
Want to get the inside scoop on other classic Spanish dishes? Don’t miss my guide to the history of paella! And if you’re looking for other tasty veggies, check out my guide to vegetarian tapas in Spain.