High season for calçots, the Catalan green onion, comes during Lent. But purposefully sloppy, social, and even kind of sexy, the eating of calçots habitually results in the kind of ritual abandon that feels like Carnival.
The calçotada, the name for a public festival or private get-together that centers on eating calçots, is an event that signals spring is around the corner, whether or not you’re still wearing a winter jacket and boots. And although restaurants do offer calçots on the menu all during the winter months in Barcelona and the surrounding area, they should really be eaten outdoors, where everyone can get really messy. Preferably on a balmy day in February or March, with only the smoke from the fire where the calçots are grilling separating you from a view of fields, rice beds and surrounding mountains.
A calçot looks like an oversize scallion with an extra-long white stalk. They are traditionally grown from whole sweet white onions, which are harvested and then replanted in late summer; these days, special calçot bulbs are available for planting.
As the onion shoots grow, farmers and gardeners push the soil up around them to cover them — a method called calçar, in Catalan, that is like “hilling” potatoes. In this way, a long stem of the onions remains white and sweet.
Calçots are available at markets around Barcelona, as well as directly from farmers around Catalunya. Millions of calçots are sold in Catalunya each year.
The ideal way to cook calçots is over a fire made of grape vine branches, a natural approach in Catalan wine country. Wood and charcoal are also used. The calçots are placed on a grill and cooked until charred. When they come off the fire, they are rolled in sheets of newspaper to keep them warm and soft.
The sauce is usually referred to as romesco, but purists note a subtle difference. Almonds, garlic, hazelnuts, olive oil (preferably arbequina), tomatoes, sweet, hot red peppers and parsley are traditional ingredients of the calcot sauce. Romesco relies on a different, more bitter pepper. Whichever your sauce, there should be plenty of it.
Once the calçots have cooled inside their newsprint packages, it’s time to put down your glass of wine (temporarily) and put on your paper bib. Then grab a calçot and eat it — see the illustration for our step-by-step guide to how it’s done.