What is it that tells you that spring is on its way? For some it may be the first signs of blossom on the almond trees or perhaps the lighter evenings. For me it is a cryptic text from my friend Martin that simply reads ‘They’re here’, accompanied by a photo of a white cardboard box. Nestled inside the box, fresh from Catalonia, are bundles of calçots.
At first glance, a calçot looks rather like a baby leek or even an overachieving spring onion, but they are actually sweet white onions that have been harvested and then replanted at the end of the summer. When the shoots start to sprout for a second time, they are plunged straight back into darkness as soil is banked up around them — a technique known as calçar in Catalan. In an effort to escape the underworld the poor onion stretches its neck further and further, eventually producing a long white stem which when cooked becomes lusciously sweet and tender.
So why the text? When I lived in England friends never took it upon themselves to send me pictures of their latest food deliveries. It is, in fact, a covert invitation: this scallion is the star of a Catalan culinary custom known as the calçotada, an event that Martin, having lived in Catalonia, is still keen to celebrate every year. As well as the calçots themselves, the other vital ingredient for a calçotada is people. It should never be undertaken by fewer than six, preferably friends (or at least people that you have no qualms about embarrassing yourself in front of – we’ll get to this). You also need an outdoor space. Views of the Pyrenees would be nice but are not requisite. In Madrid, we make do with mountains of a different sort in Martin’s garden, which appears to have been the recent victim of some rather over-zealous pruning.
Over an open fire, the calçots need to be chargrilled until they are looking almost cremated. Then, when members of the party start to complain that you have in fact burnt them (and not before), wrap them in newspaper and leave them for ten minutes. This is the ideal moment to bring out your homemade romesco sauce and open the wine.
You could choose a wine from Catalonia, but I think there are more interesting pairings to be had. Probably the most satisfying would be a rosé from Olite, which is always a good option for al fresco eating. But this year I’ve gone a little further up the road and brought a Garnacha from Campo de Borja (Aragon). This young red is fruity with a hint of both sweetness and pepper which, to my mind, compliments the sauce fantastically. Catalan nationalists might decry such a union as sacrilege, but it’s not as if they haven’t got on together before; the marriage of Petronilla of Aragon to Raymond Berenguer IV of Barcelona in 1137 created an empire that controlled swathes of the Mediterranean for more than three centuries, so if it was good enough then…
If you are not familiar with the wine region of Campo de Borja, then you are missing out. Dominated by Garnacha, much from old vines, Campo de Borja’s slightly cooler and varied climate allows the grape to show off its more sophisticated side, producing wines with delicate, spicy aromas. Look out for wines from the Borsao co-operative – especially Tres Picos (a personal favourite), which at around €14 a bottle, can stake a strong claim to being Spain’s best value red, but is a bit too robust for today’s event.
Back to the blackened calçots patiently awaiting their end. Some people wear bibs for the next stage, but they are either wimps or value laundry over gastronomy. There might be more than one way to skin a cat, but there really is only one way to skin a calçot. Grab your scallion by its shoot and pull off the blackened outer skin in one go (if you’re lucky). Next, drown it in the romesco sauce, making sure that you dunk it under long enough for it to become well-coated. Then, arching your neck backward, hold it high above your head (much like you are going to swallow a sword) and down it goes. The sweet and creamy calçots are dangerously addictive, thus tussles are hard to avoid as once good friends briefly do battle over the scraps; we are far beyond any illusion of etiquette.
High season for the calçot is not until Lent, meaning that calçotadas will be taking place all over Catalonia, and other parts of Spain, in the following weeks as friends and families come together in celebration of this humble onion and the messy end that awaits it.