Ever eaten more than 10 onions in one sitting? Or accidentally poured red wine into your eyeballs from a great height? If you answered no to any of the above, you probably haven’t participated in the great Catalan tradition of La Calçotada! Calço-what? Read on to find out more about this cherished festivity, including what you should wear, and why it might not be the ideal choice for a first date…
What’s a calçotada?
In a nutshell, a calçotada is an onion extravaganza which takes place all over Catalonia during the winter months. This curious ritual involves grilling calçots (broadly-speaking, a cross between a leek and a spring onion) over open flames on a barbecue and eating them whole as part of a multi-course and very boozy meal that can last for hours.
People often make them on their terrace at home and it’s also very common for restaurants to offer (usually unlimited) calçotada set menus, especially in February and March – the most popular months to partake in this cherished festivity. A hybrid option is to make them at a merendero (picnic area), where you pay to use the barbecue and coal and bring your own calçots. In all cases, people customarily eat them outside.
But who would want to spend hours outside in winter eating barbecued onions? Bear with me.
First of all, we’re in the Mediterranean, so spending time outdoors on a fresh, yet probably warm and sunny day is rather pleasant. Plus, calçots are a seasonal speciality only found in Catalonia, so it would be a crime to miss out if you’re here in winter. Don’t worry, they’re much tastier and milder than an ordinary onion. This onion-cum-leek is so delicious that even kids will gobble them up with gusto. Seriously, I’ve witnessed 5-year olds begging for more. On their own they’re admittedly not that interesting, but the accompanying salsa romesco – a heavenly mix of tomatoes, garlic, almonds, pine nuts, olive oil and peppers – makes them go down a treat. If you’re interested in making your own calçots and sauce, find out how at barcelonalowdown.com.
How to eat calçots:
Put on your gloves and bib (I’m serious, unless you want to get covered in sauce and spend the rest of the day picking chargrilled onion flakes out of your fingernails!)
Pull off the blackened skin as if you’re peeling a banana
Dip your calçot in romesco sauce
Dunk it in your mouth and keep munching until you reach the green tips
Repeat until you’re so satiated you swear you’ll never even look at a calçot again
With that in mind, it’s probably not the best choice for a first date. However, if the object of your affection can watch you chomping down on long, saucy onions (making a fine mess in the process), kiss you despite your seriously pungent breath, and still find you attractive, it’s got to be love at first sight!
After demolishing what feels like half your body weight in calçots it’s time for your second course! Oh yes, there’s more! Typical offerings include grilled meat and potatoes or botifarra amb mongetes – a type of Catalan sausage with fava beans. If you’re vegetarian, common alternatives are verduras a la plancha (grilled veg) which often includes artichokes, courgette, tomatoes, aubergine and maybe even some more onions!
Working clockwise from the left we have grilled artichokes, vegetarian burger with patatas y pimientos de padrón, grilled meat galore, and patatas amb mongetes
What about the booze?
Like any good tradition, we can’t forget alcohol! For a calçotada the most traditional tipple has to be a local red wine. For extra fun, make sure to order it “con porrón” (ambporró in Catalan). This is basically a glass jug with a long spout used to decanter wine.
This ingenious Spanish invention actually has a very practical use – it allows several people to drink from the same container without the need for glasses. I can also imagine it helps to oxygenate the wine, but I think 99% of people use it purely for the fun value nowadays.
Drinking from a porrón is quite an art form as it requires aiming wine into your mouth from a distance, never letting the spout touch your mouth for hygiene reasons, and without spilling it all over yourself, staining the wall, or squirting it up your nose etc. (Yes, I’ve done all of these things – what a guiri!) I’ve even been informed by an old Catalan man (so it must be true), that if you’re skilled you can pour it onto your nose and let it trickle into your mouth, and if you’re an expert you can pour it from your forehead. Have a try and let me know how far you get!
To give your digestive system an extra challenge after all that bloaty veg and booze, make sure to save some space for dessert. Typical options include: crema catalana (basically crème brûlée though the Catalans deny it because that’s French), tiramisu, fruit salads, mel i mató (cream cheese usually made with goat’s or cow’s cheese and drizzled with honey), … all to be rounded off with some cava and the obligatory post-meal coffee.
Crema Catalana (same as crème brûlée but shh!) and my lovely model Louise with some mel i mató
Ah, and we mustn’t forget the final and arguably most important step of this marathon meal: sobremesa (sobretaula in Catalan). This is a vital component of any leisurely meal involving talking for hours at the table, usually for longer than the meal itself. (Read more about sobremesa in my A-Z of Spain Part 2). After all this you’ll swear you won’t eat anything else for the rest of the day, but invariably you will.
Where can I eat calçots?
You can eat calçots anywhere in Catalonia really, but for the best experience you should go somewhere in the countryside. If you want to go super traditional, you should head down south from Barcelona to the village of Valls, the birthplace of the calçot! Apparently it was a farmer from this village who developed the vegetable by covering the shoots with soil so they would continue to grow tall in search of the sun. This growing technique of covering the base of a plant with soil to encourage growth is called calçar in Catalan, hence the name calçot. Incidentally calçar also means “to put your shoes on”.
If you want something closer to Barcelona, I would highly recommend Font Les Planes – a restaurant just a 20 minute train ride from the city centre which offers four different calçotada menus, including vegetarian and vegan. You can eat at the restaurant (both inside or out on its terrace) or hire a grill in their merendero section.
Another great choice is El Mirador de Can Cases, a wonderful restaurant in an old masia with spectacular views in the middle of Collserola natural park. Again, they are very accommodating and can offer a fully vegan or vegetarian calçotada. If you go here on a Sunday, note that there’s no bus, so you’ll have to walk through the forest for 30 minutes. This was actually a highlight for us and we made friends with dozens of dogs, geese and even some pigs! Plus, the walk will help you burn off some calories!
As you can see, the Calçotada is a lot more than eating stinky onions outside in winter. It’s the perfect excuse to see your loved ones, eat, drink and splash wine all over the walls, all in the name of the humble calçot.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to the Calçotada – just one of Catalonia’s many weird and wonderful traditions. If you’re interested in finding out more about strange Catalan traditions, check out my blog post about Catalonia’s Crappy Christmas Traditions.
Sending you sunshine and positivity from Barcelona!
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