Calçots are a trendy veggie meal, available and good for everybody. They are tasty, cool, traditional, could be very social and for sure is a super choice for vegetarians and vegans. Here you will learn what calçots are, from where they come, how to cook them and how to get into this Catalan tradition.
The origin of the calçots
The legend says that once upon a time it was a smart peasant from the late nineteenth century from Valls or nearby who ended up burning some onions in his kitchen after forgetting them in the flames. Those onions got terrible black scorched on the outside. Nevertheless, since that peasant was not rich, he thought that removing the charred layers those onions would be eatable. And voilà! He discovered an extraordinary meal he shared with all is neighbours and they developed a new Catalan tradition to spend time together making fire, lifting the wine jug and dipping calçots in its amazing sauce all together.
Probably the real story is more prosaic but same interesting. The origin of calçots is probably Roman and they were eaten most likely all around the Roman Empire. Actually, what is the first archaeological evidence of the calçots consumption? In 2000, the archaeologist discovered some paintings in the ancient Brigetio, Roman Pannonia Region (current Hungary) located in a Roman villa from the 3rd century AD. Yes, in Hungary!
In those Hungarian paintings, we can see what we deduce as a slave according to his clothes eating such a long onion, lifting it adopting same posture as we currently do eating calçots nowadays. Close to that slave, we see some pottery filled with such an orange sauce that was probably similar to the one we use today to dip calçots in, all around the main calçots’ region of Camp de Tarragona.
What calçots are exactly?
Calçots are long onions, similar to leeks, but with a more rounded head at the root. They taste like sweet onions and they are that long, since the peasant in covering with dirt as they grow. Therefore, the white part of them is extended since the sun is not touching the covered part of the plant while it is growing tall.
Calçots get to be an amazing meal mainly because of their specific sauce: a romesco sauce, called also salvitxada (in Catalan Language) or just calçots sauce. This sauce is really tasty and it is possible to do it homemade.
This especial onion is protected by a designation of origin that guarantees their quality. Under this quality seal calçots can be from some specific catalan regions: Alt Camp, Baix Camp, Tarragonés and Baix Penedés. In addition, calçots must be between 15 and 25 centimeters long and a diameter of between 1.7 and 2.5 centimeters.
Building a tradition
Calçots started to be very popular in Tarragona province, especially around Valls. They started to be very popular all around Catalunya, and claimed as a gem among all Catalan traditional dishes, just 25 or 30 years ago. Nowadays, people eat calçots in other regions of Spain and they are even exported to foreign countries including the US.
Tarragona was a very important Roman city. It was even the capital of the Roman Empire for some years. In this area, still now the agriculture is very much into the main products of the Roman times: olive oil, wine, almonds and hazelnuts. All those ingredients are basic for calçots and its tradition.
The current Rome has lost practically all the ancient Roman habits since it has been always a very important city and the centre of what with the centuries became Italy. Tarragona has not been the centre of Spain, neither of Catalonia, and has kept a quite rural identity in the nearby countryside. There some very old traditions seem to have been kept. Later on, in middle 20th century, an association called Penya Artística l’Olla, organized popular calçotades inviting VIPs from the Catalan society that created a big fame that overcame the local limits.
Besides that, we the Catalans are experts on performing collective activities that involve mainly everyone around in a common purpose. We could name now some traditions like Castellers (human towers), sardana (a traditional group dance) or the historical very strong associationism and unionism.
To eat calçots, traditionally meant to join in the countryside or a village square, to make fire, to burn calçots on it and eat them laughing and drinking wine in a group. These “calçotadas”, as we call them, became the perfect holiday food.
How to join calçots tradition?
Cooking calçots at home
Calçots are available every grocery in Catalonia during season. Nowadays the season is from late November to early April. They are normally sold in batches of 25 pieces. With a 25 calçots batch is enough for two persons. You can eat more too.
To be good you need a place to make fire. A normal barbecue is fine. Just start the fire and get good flames. You should burn the calçots in the flames during 15 or 20 minutes till the eatable white part get completely black and soft. After that with the embers of the fire you can roast meat or some other vegetables.
If you cannot start a fire nowhere at home you can also bake them in the oven. This is the last option since the taste will be fine but the texture of the onion and the whole experience will be far of being the same.
You can prepare the sauce at home too. It is a hard and long job to do it homemade and there are some popular brands that make it really good for you. Among those Ferrer and Fruits, S & P are the best ones.
If you dare to make it by yourself just prepare the ingredients and use a mortar or a blender. Here you have the list of ingredients.
Ingredients for calçots sauce:
- 100g of toasted almonds
- 30g of roasted hazelnuts
- 1 l olive oil
- 1 head of roasted garlic
- 5 roasted red tomatoes
- 15 ml of vinegar
- Dried red pepper (paprika) to your taste
Join a popular calçotada
They usually take place organized by town halls as part of their own cultural programs for important local celebrations. Like at home, it is always a good idea to join some friends and get ready to eat calçots standing up and get dirty with them having fun.
The most popular calçotada is Gran Festa de la Calçotada de Valls and takes place the last Sunday of January since 1982. To join one of this popular performances is the best way to understand the culture around calçots, to enjoy a complementary cultural program and to enjoy a traditional meal prepared in the proper way.
To order in a restaurant
Not every restaurant serves calçots during season in Catalonia. You need to go on purpose to one of those they offer calçots. If you want to taste them, there are excellent ones, some of them specialists on calçots. Prices and fixed menus can be very different between them, so it is a good idea to check on google before. The most popular ones can be very busy, call and book a table before going.
Here you have a selection of the best ones in the traditional area:
- Masia Bou (Valls): The last calçotada of the famous Penya Artística l’Olla was ordered from Masia Bou. This places is more than a classic, probably the inventors of calçotada concept.
- Casa Fèlix (Valls): They have experience of generations in preparing calçotades. This is historical one. Click here for the exact location.
- Mas Boronat (Salomó): Prepares calçots on the fire. It is a very nice place with hotel. Click here for the exact location.
- Cal Ganxo (Masmolets): It is a classic of calçotades. They are especialists and the restaurant has a very beautiful location, near Valls. Location.
- El vinyet (Vila-rodona): Beautiful restaurant that serves calçots for two persons or even for only one. Not everyone among the specialist is able to do that. Location.
- L’Esportell del Bou (Picamoixons): A very cute rural looking like. They prepare excellent food. Location.
- Les Espelmes: This a restaurant in the middle of an idyllic landscape. It is possible to eat with extraordinary views of Alt Camp region, near Valls. Location.
- Hostal Grau (Aiguamúrcia): A small hotel with history, located to Santes Creus Monastery. They offer the possibility of enjoy good calçots in a very convenient touristic area. Location.
- Masia del Pla (El Pla de Santa Maria): A road restaurant famous for its calçots. Very convenient for travellers. Location.
- Restaurant Les Arades, (Vilabella): Long experience and taste for quality in a classic old school restaurant. Location.
- La Montoliva (Vilallonga del Camp): For traditional Catalan food is a choice you won’t regret. Location.