The newspaper-lined table was a reef of smudged wine bottles, crumpled blue napkins and the discarded skins of calçots (kahl-sotes), a type of onion specially grown in Catalonia, Spain. It was the messy aftermath of a successful calçotada (kahl-soh-tah-duh), a traditional Catalan meal where the green spring onions are cooked over an open flame until their outsides are ashy and black and their insides are steamed and tender.
Hosting the event were five bricklayers from Secastilla, a tiny village in the autonomous community of Aragon, Spain, which shares a border with Catalonia. Using sawhorses and planks of wood, they created a makeshift dining area in a garage used to store tools and construction equipment. Despite the unlikely surroundings, the men had carefully covered the benches with paper and set the table with small plastic cups, bread and salsa de calçots. Cava — Spain's version of Champagne — chilled in an old paint bucket filled with water.
"We may not be in Catalonia, but I know how to grow big, delicious calçots and I know how to cook them. So why not feast on them here?" said Antonio Rabal Almazor, a 40-year-old man local to Secastilla. "Why leave all the fun to the Catalans?"
Ten months earlier, Almazor planted onion seeds, harvesting the fully grown vegetable a couple months later. He let them "rest" for several weeks, then replanted the bulbs in September, burying them deep in the soil so that the stem would grow long and remain white and sweet.
"I just pulled these out of the ground, right before coming here," Almazor said. "You can cook them over any type of wood, but grapevine branches are the best. They say that they give the calçots the best flavor, and they burn quickly and easily."
As the story goes, the tradition began in 1898 in the small Catalan town of Valls, where a peasant farmer named "Xat de Benaiges" was the first to replant mature onions for a second stint of growth. Today, more than a hundred years later, this modest vegetable is at the heart of colorful traditions of feasting and celebrating, drawing thousands of people to Catalonia each year.
Calçotadas take place between January and March, and are hosted by families, restaurants and festivals. The most prominent event is La Gran Fiesta de la Calçotada, which takes place on the last Sunday of January in Valls, where it all began. Calçots from Valls have an EU Protected Geographical Indication (like grapes from the Champagne region of France) and are highly regarded in Catalonia.
Whether at the grand event or a smaller, more intimate gathering, the onions are always cooked the same way: grilled over an open flame. When they are charred black and begin to "cry," bundles of about 20 are transferred to newspaper and rolled up into steamy packages. Traditionally, they are then placed — newspaper and all — into curved terra cotta roof tiles, but we unwrapped our calçots directly on the table.
At a calçotada, casual, messy gusto trumps all else.
Eating the onions requires a little finesse and a lot of appetite. Shouting over one another, the bricklayers were happy to instruct: 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. Then drag the onion through the salsa de calçots and wind it down into your mouth. Bibs are commonly worn.
Salsa de calçots — often confused with the very similar romesco sauce that also comes from Catalonia — is a smoky, creamy sauce made from tomatoes, nora peppers, garlic and almonds. Some add hazelnuts or stale bread.
Longaniza sausage and lamb grilled over the same fire as the calçots are served as a second course, and dessert traditionally includes oranges, Catalan crème (which is basically crème brûlée) and cava.
"There's nothing better than calçots cooked fresh from the earth. I think I could eat hundreds of them," said Almazor.
Kate Wilson is a writer based in Secastilla, Spain. Contact her at [email protected]