Winter in Catalonia - time to feast on onions!
Calçotada festival from sunrise to sunset
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On a fresh but still sunny day in February, let's get out to a cozy village in the Catalan region to enjoy the unusual taste of calçotas in a rustic restaurant.
Catalonia has an excellent climate, so the land is rich in different types of vegetables. Artichokes, spinach, beans, tomatoes, onions, beans, aubergines, garlic and cabbage are all grown here. The Catalans, however, are fond of calçots (onions). In honour of calçots, the village of Vila Sacra hosts an annual Fira (fair), which we want to tell you about in this article.
In fact, calçots are by no means leeks or green onions in the broader sense, but are white onions grown in a special way over the course of a year. This biennial herb Allium porrum with a stem up to one and a half meters long was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. It is thought to have originated in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. The Roman emperor, Nero, was fond of onions and used them in soups and olive oil in countless quantities. He claimed that it was this magical onion that made his voice strong and distinctive and developed his oratory skills.
The most popular legend of Catalonia and the calçotes onion is that it originated with a peasant called Xat de Benaiges from the town of Valls. It was this onion farmer who was said to have discovered that onions sautéed over a fire with a special sauce tasted delicious.
And in the early 20th century the Calçotada tradition became a holiday tradition in Valaisian families. Since the middle of the last century, restaurants in the town of Valls began a mass onion eating festival at the end of January - the Gran Festa de la Calçotada, where various competitions are held to decide who eats the most onions, who is the best producer and who has the best salsa (sauce) for calçots.
The fun starts with preparing onions, which have to be roasted in a special way. The fact is that properly roasted onions can only come out of a fire made from the scraps of dried vines. The vine burns hot and almost without smoke. There is a special machine for this purpose - a large lattice platform. Onions are placed in rows on the platform and dry vines are placed under it. When the vines are ignited, the onions are not roasted over an open fire, but simply in the fire itself, in a "live" fire - al fuego vivo. This is important, because you won't get anything like that in a regular grill, much less an oven.
It all cooks rather quickly, 10-15 minutes. The smell is very pleasant. After all the huge batch of onions has been grilled, the platform is unfolded, lowered and pulled to the ground with a special hook. The onions are wrapped in bundles in paper or old newspaper, put in special troughs (most often pieces of tile) and served.
The process of eating calçots is no less scenic than the cooking. Plates with special romesco sauce and glass jugs of wine are already on the long table. Roasted onions are also placed there, and all the participants are given long aprons and disposable gloves so as not to get dirty.
You grip the bundle with your right hand at the tip of the shooters and with an elegant movement of your left hand peel the charred skin off it, dip the onion in the romesco sauce, tilt your head back and pop it in your mouth as a whole. And so on until all the onions are done and the apron is covered with black spots from charcoal and red stains from the sauce. Learning to peel a calzone in one motion without tearing it will earn you the respect of those around you. All in all, it's a lot of fun and delicious!
Onion calçots on their own aren't very hearty. But with the nutty romesco sauce, which is so handy to pick up from the plate with a crispy crust of fresh bread, you still can't eat much of these onions, even drinking them with Catalan wine from a handy glass jug.
It's no coincidence that the large restaurants for which the "calçotada" tradition is a signature ritual are located on the outskirts of Valls. After all, a large open space is needed for a proper ceremony, as well as a place to store the onions and vines themselves. At the peak of the season, in January and February, the onion roasting process goes on almost continuously in these restaurants.
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