What are calçots? They are a special type of allium typical of Valls, a town in the Tarragona province of Catalunya.
This special local allium variety has its own celebration, known as a calçotada. These parties revolving around the calçot are from the late 19th century and have evolved into a series of events in and adjacent to Tarragona and Barcelona. Calçot season is typically from mid-November to mid-April, but peak season is from January to March, which is when most of the festivals are held.
Valls is the center of calçot production and has a protected geographical region which includes 4 counties (comarcas): Alt Camp, Baix Camp, Tarragonès and Baix Penedès.
The native vegetable is part of the allium (onion and garlic) family, and about a third of the plant is white and a bit sweet like a cooked leek, while the other two-thirds are more like a heartier green onion.
Valls hosts their annual calçotada in late January and it is one of the largest and certainly most well-known: this year was the 40th edition (40ª Gran Festa de la Calçotada 2022). After having been cancelled in 2021, it was back this year with much anticipation.
It started around 10am with the lighting of the wood fires and placement of the calçots on the large custom grills. Dressed in traditional vests and barretines the people of Valls tended to the fires on the makeshift sandpit over one of the city plazas.
Demonstrations of sauce making included the traditional accompanying sauce known as salvitxada - the usual one with nuts, and a celiac and nut-safe version this year. Salvitxada is similar to romesco; in Tarragona they call it by their own name or simply "salsa de calçots". The sauce compliments the fire-roasted onion as it has a tomato and red pepper base, smoked paprika, roasted garlic, almonds, hazelnuts, and vinegar to add a little acid.
Restaurants, bars, and gourmet shops around town all compete for the best prepared sauce and present them on tables in front of the establishments so locals and visitors can judge for themselves, who has the best one.
The calçotada is one of many fun events in Catalunya that puts traditional agricultural products and methods of preparation at the center of the party. Wines from the region/D.O. Tarragona were presented for tasting and pairing with the infamous vegetable. In fact, the meal pack included a mini cava bottle to enjoy with your calçots and other accoutrements. It's usual to eat the calçots by the dozen, to dip them in the sauce, and drop right into your mouth from overhead.
If you can´t imagine eating just onions, they usually offer bread, wine, sausages, oranges, plus sauces of course. Also, the mild, smooth, creamy whites have really light flavor while the green parts are slick and have a lot of char flavor. They blacken the outside layer of the onion until it´s got a strong BBQ or campfire taste.
Other features of the party include the famous porró (porrón), a communal wine vessel that pours a fine stream directly into the mouth. Valls is in wine country also, with the climate in Tarragona being a little drier and inland than the coastal wine growing areas with growing conditions more similar to Eastern WA, OR, or parts of California. In fact, for the calçotada fires, it is traditional to use the sarment (sarmiento) for the wood - they are the grape vines, stems, and branches leftover from the vineyards. They are longer and very uniform in size, so they burn well for the task at hand.
Calçots are great in tortillas (egg type), and if you have leftovers you can incorporate them into croquetas, quiches, tarts, lasagnas, pastas, on sandwiches, or blended up into sauces. The smoky flavor tastes great in a non-traditional green salsa for tacos since it has similar tasting notes to mezcal due to the roasting process.
Look for the next edition in late January, 2023 in Valls, or in other towns near Tarragona and Barcelona throughout the months of January, February, and sometimes March. Official pictures of this year's event are featured below on the event website. Enjoy!