Where: Valls, Catalan, Northern Spain
What happens: Communal downing of hundreds of char grilled onions
Remember to bring: A breath freshener
Where it’s at
The Catalan tradition for an “-ada” (a meal, usually for 1,000 mouths or more, based around a single ingredient which could be anything from snails to salt cod to chocolate), often creates some highly unusual, charming and community spirited festivals. In the town of Valls, capital of Castellers – the people practice the precarious art of building human towers – and of calçots. Calçots are pretty much re-sprouted onions that are not allowed to die. Catalans hate waste so they shove them back underground until something happens. They sprout and the shoots are then covered in earth to maintain a white, succulent stem which grows into a long, gangly spear something between a leek and a spring onion. And then, after months in the dark, they barbecue them.
What happens at the Calçotada?
The town’s annual Calçotada celebrates the harvest of these sumptuous, char-grilled treats by laying out huge steel barbecues through the streets. Calçots, grubby from the earth are laid in thick bundles across glowing vine embers and charred to black. On removal, they are wrapped in newspaper (to soften the skin and steam the innards) before being downed in much the same way as a baby bird might neck a worm. In another of the town’s plazas, five strong-armed volunteers pounded together a special calçot dipping sauce.
As the streets fill with the smell of vine smoke, barbecued meats hiss and crackle on the pyre where the calçots lay, the crowd heaves and slithers through the narrow streets, dunking and devouring with gusto as they go. Porrons (long-spouted, glass watering cans) filled with cheap red wine are shared and shattered, cheers erupt out of chupito (thimble-sized shots of local hooch) fuelled chattering. In the town’s main plaza, the annual calçots eating competition built to fever pitch as local champs from all over Catalunya compete to down as many as they can within 45 minutes. It’s not unusual to see them neck as many as 300 in one sitting.
This years winner – beefy, rugby playing Adrian from Barcelona-had an entourage of squealing blonde beauties on the verge of orgasmic delight as he downed onion after onion after onion, grinning and winking all the while. That’s just one of the oddities of a Calçotada, the erotic overtones that seem to put everyone on heat for the day. Just close your eyes and think of Nigella Lawson opening her gob and sucking one down and you’ll get the general idea.
A winner marks the end of the festival and the start of the feasting proper in the innumerable calçot factories (huge, cafeteria style restaurants), and in the handful of local cafes in town. For around 20 euro you can expect a never ending mound of calçots piled into the hollow grooves of roofing tiles (all part of the tradition) a heap of grilled meats, a lusty crema catalana to finish and lashings of cava – Catalan champagne.
Unlike the Tomatina or the Running of the Bulls, the Calcotada is refreshingly local in style and ambience. Few non-Spanish tourists make it for the day, which ensures a genuine and friendly welcome for anyone heading off the beaten track. Of course it helps to know how to say Salute and Buen Provecho.
A sensory introduction to the essence of Spanish cooking, and a journey of the more weird and wonderful aspects of this varied cuisine.
By Tara Stevens