Calling a calçot an overgrown onion is rather like calling a Périgord truffle a ball of black fungus: essentially accurate but missing the point entirely. The gastro-hysteria inspired by the local love of this sweet white scallion reaches its peak on January 31st this year, in its hometown of Valls, with La Gran Festa de la Calçotada, when over 30,000 people converge to gorge themselves on calçots. Six euros and a lot of queuing will buy you a kit bag with a dozen calçots, a pot of salvitxada sauce, bread, some local red wine, an orange, some roast hazelnuts and a cotton bib.
There’s plenty of time to buy your own as calçot season stretches from late November to March: calçots from the warmer coastal crops are ready by Christmas, but in colder Lleida the calçots take all winter to grow and are picked late into the season. In the markets, calçots are generally sold in muddy bundles of 24, which should be enough for two moderately greedy people (although bear in mind that the top players in the Valls calçot-eating competition can put away over 200 calçots in 45 minutes). Find a large outdoor space and build a fire, preferably of vine cuttings, and place a flat metal grill over the flames. Grill the calçots until charred and floppy and serve on a clay roof tile or wrapped in foil or newspaper to keep warm. Shuck the blackened outer skins and dip the calçot in the salvitxada sauce which is made by grinding almonds, hazelnuts, nyora peppers, garlic, tomato, parsley, oil and breadcrumbs in a pestle and mortar. Throw your head back and eat the dripping calçot, sword-swallower style. Drink some wine. Repeat to fade. --NF
January is just about the time when you need a little colour back in your life, and carrots are nature's way of giving it to you. When the rest of the earth seems cold and dead, carrots come into their prime. Packed with beta-carotene, vitamin A and potassium they are also one of the best ways of keeping winter colds at bay. Originally from Asia, the orange carrot is a fairly new thing, hundreds of years ago they were more likely to be lilac, dark purple or yellow and were generally used medicinally. Rare varieties however, are starting to make a comeback and are worth looking out for at the more adventurous stalls in the market.
Though available year round, this is really the time to eat them for well-developed sweetness and flavour. Buy small to medium sized carrots that are firm, with a vivid orange colour. And don’t keep them in the fridge as this tends to turn them flabby.
Try the following two-in-one recipe: Cut 500 grammes of carrots into thumb-sized chunks. Dry fry a dessert spoon of coriander seeds and a half-teaspoon of black peppercorns until their aromas start to fill the kitchen. Remove from the pan and crush in a pestle and mortar. Crush two cloves of garlic with a pinch of salt and toss with the carrots and spice mix. Roast in olive oil in a hot oven for 30-40 minutes or until golden and caramelised. Serve with any roast meats or fish. Double the quantities and you can blend the leftovers with a litre of chicken stock for a warming winter soup. --TS
Two delicate, highly prized and famous (or infamous) winter fruits are in season this month. The late white uva de Vinalopó from Alicante is grown covered with paper, to both protect the grapes and delay their ripening. This is the grape that’s traditionally swallowed with each chime of midnight on New Year’s Eve. The custom is said to have been invented by grape growers to use up the excess fruit from a bumper harvest in 1909. Any leftover grapes should be at a good price now, so buy them up and make grape butters, syrups, jams and jellies.
Another iconic fruit now in the market is the Raf tomato. Originally developed by selective breeding to resist a certain fungus (hence its name, which stands for ‘Resistente A Fusarium’), this Almerian native has become the superstar of the tomato world, commanding prices of up to €10 per kilo or more. Because of this, there are many Raf imposters on the market. A real, ripe Raf should have the distinctive, deeply-segmented shape, a dark green, almost black colour at the stalk end, and the first signs of colouring (yellow-red) at the base. When cut, you can see its distinctive, many irregularly spaced seed chambers. To be sure of your supply, buy online from producers in the home of the Raf tomato—Níjar in Almeria—such as www.tomaraf.com. --KF