Thursday, May 5, 2011

Calçotada in Valldoreix (Spain)

It's very late to be writing about this, but I still want to talk about our favorite Catalan tradition so far: the calçotada! Ah, just thinking about it makes my mouth water...

The Calçotada, as some of you Anthony Bourdain fans might have seen, is Catalunya's version of the hog roast or pig pickin,' minus the pig. As there is a stereotype that Catalans are penny-pinchers, one of my students told me that they say that Catalans are so cheap, when they have a barbecue, it's not meat they are grilling... it's onions! A calçot is a special kind somewhere between a green onion and a leek in size. They are planted in mounded beds and harvested sometime in late winter or early spring.

In February, we were invited to the all day affair in Valldoreix, a town maybe an hour on the train outside of Barcelona. To get our appetites up, we went for a hike in the mountains past olive trees to an old church. Then we returned to the house for some pica-pica (usually involves olives, chips, and assorted bits of canned seafood you try to pick up unsuccessfully with toothpicks) and badminton. There was a lot of laughing and snickering while the guiris (foreigners) tried drinking out of the porró, a typical Catalan decanter with a long spout. Pros are measured by how far away they can hold the porró from their mouths and still maintain a steady stream of wine without dribbling it on their chins or clothes.

Calçots actually require minimal preparation - just cut off the root ends and no worries about the dirt! Once the fire is going (traditionally using grapevine wood), the calçots are arranged in a single layer on the grill. You need to flip them in order to get the nice charring on both sides. When properly blackened, a bunch of the calçots are bundled tightly together in newspaper and set aside (optionally inside another container). After a half hour or so, they are ready to eat.

The correct way to eat a calçot is to pull off the outer charred layer in a single movement with your two pinched fingers. Then you dip the naked calçot into a bowl of salvitxada (a divine concoction with ground nuts, tomato, and olive oil so heavy on the garlic that it's spicy), swirling it around to get a liberal portion. Then you pull the whole, dripping mess up to your mouth and, starting from the bottom end, try to eat the whole thing in one go. You should be left in the end with only the stringy green top and very ashy fingers. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat... Seriously, the hosts at our calçotada calculated on 30 calçots per person! They are pretty addictive - a creamy, spicy, and nutty explosion- with surprisingly, none of the harshness you would expect from eating ridiculous amounts of onions. Now, I know I ate many myself, but I am pretty sure I did not meet my quota.

In case anyone was still hungry after the pica-pica and calçots, there were grilled botifarras (typical Catalan sausage) and lambchops to be had as well. The calçotada lasted well into the evening - even past the time when most of Spain would actually be eating their normal dinner - with some talented folks bringing their guitars and finishing off with a couple of gypsy's arms. A "brazo de gitano" (literally: gypsy's arm) is a sponge cake roll desert with lavish amounts of whipped cream filling inside. We rolled off our chairs, bid our hosts goodnight, and hoped that our fellow passengers on the train back to Barcelona would forgive us of the reek of onions, garlic, wine, and woodsmoke that was surely seeping from us.

The only bad thing we can say about the calçotada is that we were disappointed to not be invited to more. Many Catalans will take part in a calçotada two or three times during the season.

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