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A Calçotada in Catalonia

(post, Antonella Severo)


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My husband and I have been visiting Catalonia since 2000 and as we traveled around the small towns, we saw restaurants advertising calçotadas. Our Catalonian friends explained it was a traditional meal featuring the calçot, a type of local onion that looks like a leek and is roasted over an open fire and eaten with a traditional sauce called romesco. (Some may confuse them with calçat, which means footwear in Catalan.)

For several years the calçotada remained a mystery to me, but it wasn’t until we actually moved to Barcelona a few years ago that we actually experienced a true calçotada in open air.  Although we had tried calçots at restaurants, it's just not the same as we now know after having attended a privately held one. A group of musician friends had a bit of a windfall so they decided to throw a calçotada and invited us. We converged at a farmhouse near Tarragona belonging to the family of one of the members. It even had olive trees on it – which farmhouse out here doesn't?

With a gorgeous spring day as a backdrop, we watched the team cut up and place the calçots on the fire to grill them. As there were many, it took a while. We set up a long table with a couple of benches and sat down to wait. Meanwhile, our friend Francesc, who made the romesco sauce, started spooning it into individual cups. The primary ingredients in the sauce are roasted almonds, chopped down to a paste, with tomatoes, lots of olive oil, roasted garlic (raw garlic would be too strong) and other secret ingredients that vary by chef. Finally the time came to eat: the guys brought the calçots wrapped in newspaper packets. I kept waiting for everyone to sit down. Instead, they moved the benches out of the way! We were to stand as we ate. No fineries here.

How to eat a calçot:
1) peel the outer grilled skin off in one fell swoop
2) dip the calçot into the romesco sauce
3) tip back your head and eat as much as you can bite off (some of them can be fibery)

I was amazed at how tender and great they tasted. We all just tore into them until they were all gone, and ended up with black hands. But if this wasn't enough, it was back to the grill to cook up lots of meat. I didn't really eat the ribs, but I pulled a piece of sausage for my daughter and tasted it myself to make sure it wasn't too spicy. I was surprised at how tasty and fresh it was (this coming from me, a former vegetarian!!!) Truth be told, I went back for many more pieces for myself.

We ended the meal with a dessert called braço de Gitano, Gypsy's Arm — a yellow-sponge roulade filled with a deliciously fresh cream with hints of lemon. Then we topped it off with a variety of liquers, such as one made from chamomile, as well as coffee someone had brought in a thermos. The train back to Barcelona that evening was packed as a large school group was traveling together and we had to stand and sit on the floor in the vestibule. But that didn't detract from how wonderful it was to be outdoors all day feasting. As someone had mentioned during the meal, the Catalans spend a lot of time eating. I don't have any problem with that.