Friday, February 19, 2010
Onions. Lots and Lots of Onions.
The onion is called a calçot. Calçots are not simply eaten, they are celebrated, and the resulting event is called a calçotada. As the people of Valls say themselves, La calçotada ja no és només un àpat, sinó que també és una festa (the calçotada isn’t just a meal, it’s a party).
On the last Sunday of every January, the town of Valls holds a festival – their famous calçotada – that attracts thousands of people from all over Catalunya who come to gorge on the local delicacy. But don’t think that people are just standing around at this festival eating onions. They do stand, the tables are laid out in various public squares throughout the old part of town and you eat standing up. But you don’t eat calçots plain. There is no such thing as a calçotada without romesco sauce.
Romesco sauce can be made from peppers, almonds, hazelnuts, tomatoes, garlic, salt, and oil, but that is just a generalization. There are probably as many variations of romesco as there are cooks. The most typical pepper used is the medium-mild nyora pepper, but since you can only find it here, Colman Andrews, author of Catalan Cuisine, says a substitute could be the ancho pepper.
One doesn’t have to go to the festival in Valls to enjoy a calçotada. Many restaurants around Valls and throughout Catalunya offer calçotades during the season that goes from November through April. At a calçotada, the first course will be the calçots, of which you will be expected to eat at least a dozen. They are served with romesco and farmer’s bread, for sopping up any leftover sauce.
Even in restaurants, the groups for calçotades are usually large, often a dozen or more people. But we went just the two of us the other day. I had made a reservation at a restaurant called Cal Ganxo in Masmolets, just outside of Valls, that had been recommended by Julian, our friend Trini’s brother. He is a regular there and insisted that there was no better place. I think he may have been right.
Cal Ganxo was once a masia (a Catalan farmhouse) that has been converted, with its outbuildings, into a very charming, rustic, multi-room restaurant. We sat in the celler, as instructed by Julian. The porró filled with red wine was already there waiting for us when we were seated. I opted to drink from a glass. It’s safer. Manel, who is a bona fide Catalan and a porró expert, managed to spill a good amount of wine on the table, so I’m glad I didn’t even try. From that ignominious start we went on to have the best calçotada ever.