Today’s Catalan food post is about a feast rather difficult to reproduce outside of Catalonia as you probably don’t have the basic materials – calçots (*see below*).
The calçot-eating feast (calçotada) is a January-March outdoor fun barbecue feast thing with friends and family. It can be an Organized Event at a restaurant with an outdoor eating area, but, in my opinion, it is best when held at someone’s house – a house out in the wilds with a bit of land.
First, invite a few friends or family around. The days before, get all the ingredients or divide the chores up amongst your guests. The famous calçot sauce (see below) should be made if possible the day before to get it out of the way.
It’s a kind of romesco sauce made with roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, ground hazelnuts (and almonds optionally), chilli pepper, ground toasted bread, vinegar salt, and olive oil. There are variations of course. The resulting sauce should be delicious, slightly vinegary or spicy, and thick.
On the day, you want your guests there nice and early (i.e early for lunch – about 11 o’clock is fine for a 2 o’clock meal) as most of the fun of the day is to be had searching for suitable wood for the barbecue, getting it lit, chatting, drinking beer, a few crisps, a bit more chatting, preparing the food.... you need two kinds of wood, one suitable for producing embers for barbecuing the meat and another one (e.g. dry olive tree branches is what we use, though in the area where this tradition started out - Valls - they use pruned branches from vineyards) for making a quick huge flame.
Done that? Start to clean up the calçots – scrape a bit of soil off, cut any roots or excessively long leaves off – and get them on to whatever you’re going to use to barbecue them - some kind of grill thing, a home-made wire contraption or even the metal springy bottom from a bed! Anything which allows them to get “burnt” quickly when you flare up the fire.
Have some more beer, and a few peanuts. Greet the latecomers.
Probably best to barbecue the meat first, and then try to keep it warm. People usually do sausages, lamb chops, black puddings. Then throw the quick-burning branches on the fire, and place the layer of calçots in the flames for a few minutes till the outsides go black – i.e. burnt. Immediately wrap them up in bunches in old newspaper. This keeps them warm and helps them to finish cooking on the inside – i.e. go soft.
Now, you usually all stand around a long table in the garden with a little dish of the sauce in front of you, the wine on the table in a porrò (see photo below - designed to pass around, pouring from the small hole directly into the mouth without touching it (with your mouth)), and remember (too late now) you should be wearing your don’t-care-if-I-make-a-mess clothes. Some less experienced calçot feasters also wear bibs. It has been said that in the urban capital of Barcelona they may even wear gloves but that’s nonsense ... the whole point is to make a mess. Get a calçot, hold it up by the leaves and peel the burnt skin down and off till you see the tender white calçot. Dip it in the sauce and hold it above you, and gently bite away at the bottom. You may need a few bites and a few sauce-dips to finish one, eating as far as the non-tender green leaves. Then repeat. You will soon see the sauce and burnt stuff gets everywhere, a very dirty messy meal! It’s said that a typical adult would eat about 10 of them. The calçots, and especially the sauce, are delicious but don’t overdo it as once this part of the feast is over, you tidy the table up a bit and dig in to all the other great stuff. Usually a plethora of barbecued meat, roasted artichokes, a variety of omelettes, olives, crisps, toast with allioli (like garlic mayonnaise, homemade also before lunch), roasted red pepper and aubergine, wine and/or beer and so on. When you’re well and truly stuffed you can sit around all day in the nice Mediterranean winter sun, chatting away, and having a coffee, or get dragged into doing games and sports by the kids who are usually fed up of just cooking and eating by now.
As I’ve said, difficult to reproduce this event in south Yorkshire or other places in the world, but no winter-spring visit to Catalonia is complete without trying one!
* The key to the question – just what is a calçot? Well, according to different English web pages or newspaper articles it could be a spring onion, a shallot, a scallion, a green onion, a sweet onion, looks like a leek... whoah, wait a minute! Having eaten many I’d say it’s a kind of bland sweetish (i.e not really cry-your-eyes-out onion flavoured) onion but the trick is not so much as what dodgy translation we can find in a dictionary, but more in how it is grown. As the onion starts to grow, you pile the soil up around it, and again, and again. It’s a slow and careful process (my father-in-law used to do it) but if you do it well, and the weather is suitable, and the kind of soil right, eventually you get these long white 2 cm (?) thick “onions”. Try these links... Guardian , Wikipedia , another blog post on the subject by someone else.
Photos say more than a thousand word, they say...