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Photo by David Montgomery
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Photo by Sònia Vallés
Competitors taking part in the sauce-making contest in Valls
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Your calçot setupAll you need for a calçotada: calçots grilled to a crisp on the barbecue, salvitxada (romesco) sauce, a beer, some napkins and a bib.The festival officially begins at about 9am and ends at about 3pm.
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How to eat a calçot - part 1Peel the blackened skin off your calçot. You're going to end up with some messy fingernails, but you've got to get to the innards of the veggie. The fire has turned them almost creamy.
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How to eat a calçot - part 2Dip the newly exposed white inside into the calçot sauce, a romesco complete with almonds, hazelnuts, tomatoes and other delicious ingredients. Each recipe is a bit different, so try to get your hands on a few sauces.
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How to eat a calçot - part 3After you've slathered your creamy calçot in romesco sauce, shove the delicious stem in your mouth. Don't worry about being messy, that's why you've got a bib.
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At the tableIf you get to Valls in time, you can buy a €6 ticket that gets you 12 calçots, salvitxada sauce, wine, bread, an orange (to cut the onion breath!) and a spot at a table. This year, the city's 4000 tickets were sold out by 1:30. Don't worry, though. There are loads of restaurants and food stands featuring calçots at low prices. You might even get a pair of gloves to cut the soot.
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At the tablePass the sauce!
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Open pit barbecuesJust south of the main plaza, Valls sets up two or three communal barbecue pits for visitors to throw their meat on.
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A fireTake care when, in search of calçots, you rush past these fire pits, set up by the city for communal meat grilling.
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On the grillMost eat the meat after the calçots. The festival winds down after the grills are cooled, at about 3pm.
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People gather around the barbecuePeople wait their turn and turn their meat on one of the huge barbecue pit provided by Valls. Bring your own meat or wait in the long queue at a town butcher. Some bring their own griddle, too, to throw on unoccupied fires.
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CastellValls is famous for its castells. You can catch a few while you watch the calçot eating contest in the main square.
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The calçot eating contestIn the main square, near the end of the day's festivities, the eating contest begins. In 2010, Adrià Wegryzl won once again, eating 350 calçots in 45 minutes!
Creative cuisine and classy restaurants may have put Catalunya on the gourmands’ map, but it’s food of a far more primitive nature that provides the real flavour of the place.
Without having tried one, it’s hard to imagine that a vegetable akin to a spring onion, charred on a fire and served at a simple wooden table with nothing more than a sauce, could be an appetising prospect. Yet that is the main ingredient of a calçotada, a feast where family and friends get together to consume large quantities of calçots—a long, straggly, green vegetable that is a cross between an onion and a leek.
The calçot was first cultivated in the late 19th century by a farmer called Xat Benaiges in the southern Catalan town of Valls—the place also credited with being the birthplace of castells, the towers of people seen so often at festes majors.
Following Benaiges’s success, it soon became customary in Valls and the surrounding Alt Camp region to celebrate the approach of spring with noisy and boisterous winter gatherings, the focus of which was the humble calçot. Over the past 20 years, the popularity of these get-togethers has spread and millions of calçots are now consumed at events throughout Catalunya.
To mark the official start of the calçot season, Valls holds the Gran Festa de La Calçotada on the final Sunday of January. Rafael Castells, secretary of the Valls Chamber of Commerce, which organises the event, said it was first held in 1982 and now attracts more than 30,000 people to the town.
“The festival is really well established and continues to grow,” he said. “While calçotades are now held in other parts of Catalunya, Valls is where you can experience the authentic, typical and traditional calçotada.”
Castells said that like most locals, he attends numerous calçotades every year; to satisfy the demand of the revellers, there are around 40 growers in Valls producing an estimated 5 million calçots annually.
The growing process is a long and complicated one, beginning with onion seeds being planted and then plucked from the ground once they’ve formed a bulb at the base. They are then dried out in a cool, dark place before having their tops sliced off and re-planted at the end of the summer under a thin layer of soil. The shoots that quickly sprout from the onion bulbs are then repeatedly covered with earth, which has the effect of blanching and sweetening the shoots. By the end of the year each onion should have produced a bunch of thin-stemmed calçots.
Traditionally the vegetables are cooked over a fire of vine branches, which gives the Alt Camp its own distinctive aroma during the calçot season. Castells said: “The sweet smoke from calçotades spreads over the county at weekends, becoming part of the landscape and forming part of its social and cultural heritage.”
Elsewhere in Catalunya, the calçotada has remained true to the Valls tradition and is an excuse for a large family gathering or a get-together with friends. Vincenç Masanas, a computer consultant from Banyoles, said that the calçot “feasts” were a relatively new addition to the cultural calendar.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, calçotades were virtually unheard of in Girona and the vegetables were not grown here either,” he said. “My father has an hort [allotment] and he never used to grow calçots. But for the past five years he has cultivated them and we now have calçotades at home maybe three or four times over the winter.”
In late January, when the official calçot season gets underway, Masanas’s colla d’amics (group of friends) holds a calçotada attended by around 30 adults and between 20 and 30 children. For the past few years, this gathering has been held at a friend’s house in the hills above Banyoles, where roasted goat is cooked over an open fire and served after the calçots. It’s a communal affair with different people co-opted to bring the firewood, wine and meat and, importantly, to make the calçot sauce.
This famous sauce—or salsa—is a vital part of any calçotada and is traditionally made from almonds, roasted tomatoes, garlic and olive oil pounded into a smooth reddish-orange paste.
Before being cooked, the calçots are strung together on a wire in batches of 30 or 40 and then simply laid on top of the fire to sizzle until they are completely charred on the outside. Once the calçots are ready, they are brought to a long wooden table set up outside; it’s then time for the delightfully mucky act of eating the tender vegetables encased within the blackened exterior.
This process involves holding the calçot at the top with one hand and gently tugging the end of the vegetable with the other hand to strip away the charred outer layer. Once this is removed, the soft, white stem is revealed. This is then dipped into the sauce, before throwing back one’s head and lowering the delicious onion into the mouth.
Calçot eating is usually accompanied by generous amounts of red wine from purrós (glass wine-holders with a long, thin spout) placed along the length of the table. The aftermath of any calçotada is a messy table piled high with the stripped-off outer leaves while participants clean their blackened hands and salsa-smeared faces.
Not that the eating ends there. Traditionally calçots are just the first course of a meal that usually includes botifarra sausages or lamb (xai in Catalan), oranges and, of course, crema Catalana.
Masanas said that every year the colla buys around 600 calçots—based on an average of 20 per adult—but he said that most of the men end up eating their way through 30 to 40 each. And he added that in his experience, the eating of large quantities of calçots was definitely something to be done at lunchtime to allow your body time to digest them.
“My advice is never eat them in the evening. If you do, it will be a long night,” he said.
But people’s readiness to dig in and enjoy the delicacy isn’t just confined to homespun events; many restaurants in Catalunya now offer patrons calçots when they are in season. The Costa Brava is no exception, and one of the better known venues for a calçotada is La Thiona restaurant, a few kilometres south of Girona near Caldes de Malavella.
Situated in a sprawling masia, the eaterie is renowned for its calçots, which are served from early December until the end of February. In common with other restaurants, diners can opt for a simple teula (tile) of calçots at €12 or go for a full €35 menú, including calçots, grilled meats, dessert and cava. The restaurant has also grown its own calçots in the surrounding fields for over 10 years—although it cannot produce enough here to satisfy demand.
Its manager, Alfonso Dominguez, said that during the two-and-a-half-month season around 70,000 calçots are served at La Thiona.
“It is impossible for us to grow that many calçots, so we have to buy in whatever we cannot cultivate ourselves,” he said. Alfonso admitted that the vegetables weren’t the simplest crop to produce, but he said that the end result was virtually the same as a calçot grown in Valls. “They have practically the same taste and are of the same calibre as the Valls calçot,” he said.
A good judge of Valls’ calçots is Adrià Wegrzyn from Barcelona, a three-time winner of the town’s calçot-eating competition, which takes place during the festival. The 33-year-old won the event at his first attempt in 2002, returned to succesfully defend his title the following year and then won again in 2007. Last year, he ate his way through 314 calçots—2.9kg of them—to win top prize, although this was slightly down on the astonishing figure of 326 calçots (3.12kg) that he ate in 2003.
“I started going to the Valls festa because it was a great day out with my friends,” he told Costa Brava Resident. “Before that I went to a couple of calçotades every year but only ate the normal 20 or 30 calçots that people do.”
When asked how he felt after chomping his way through so many calçots he said: “I feel very full. Usually I like to have some meat after calçots but that’s not possible after taking part in the competition.”
Filling they may be, but calçotades are lively and thoroughly enjoyable occasions that show a real flavour of Catalunya.
For more info: Valls Gran Festa de la Calçotada
Please note that this article was first published in Barcelona Metropolitan's sister publication Costa Brava Resident in January 2008