He Peeled Off the Stockings Slowly… : adventures with a calçot

Today (last weekend of January) is the Gran Festa de la Calçotada in Valls, a town a couple of hours’ drive south-west of Barcelona. Essentially this is a festival of eating a very particular, locally grown onion.

Here at Saucy Dressings, we reckon, amateur linguists that we are, that the word ‘calçot’ comes from the same stem as the Spanish word, ‘calcetín’ – sock or stocking.

How are calçots grown?

Wherever it derives its name, this poor onion is made to suffer. Planted in the autumn, they are dug up only a few months later to be kept in a dingy store room for a whole year before they are allowed to see the soil for a second time (why on earth do they do this?!). As they begin to grow, the farmers ensure that their perfect white skin is not affected by the sun, piling on soil to prevent them turning green. By the end of the whole process they look like a giant spring onion – with a beautiful complexion of course! That’s when the cooking begins…

How are calçots cooked traditionally?

The authentic method of cooking them is outside – on a rack over a coal fire, or at the very least a barbecue. The onions are grilled whole and slowly over grape vines until the outer layers are charred. Then they’re wrapped in newspaper to make them sweat – this process makes them more succulent and tender and helps to loosen the outside leaves.

Then each diner peels down the outer layer, takes the remaining virginal white length of onion, dips it into a fiery romesco sauce, and then sucks and licks down vegetable and sauce together. The Catalan revellers eat their calçots together with a kind of local black pudding known as botifarra.

Cooking calçots at home… or not

My advice on the cooking of the calçot however is don’t try this at home!

This is what happened when we tried it.

Not having a burning brazier to hand (an essential feature of the proper method), we opted for the grill which results in the cooked calçot losing some essential smoky flavour – although some remains thanks to the use of smoked salt and smoked paprika in the sauce.

We chopped off the bulk of the green leaves and grilled until charred.

calçot recipe
calçots ready for grilling

And then we served, one each, on hot plates with a bowl of the sauce and a generous supply of kitchen towel.

I can vouch for the fact that the Chief Taster is, in the normal course of events, pretty adept at taking off stockings. However, this thin, sticky, papery type proved too much for him. He abandoned his onion and offered it, pathetically, to our daughter – not so much ‘peel me a grape’ as ‘please peel my calçot’. The operation certainly wasn’t how restaurateur, Gabrielle Hamilton, describes it, ‘like pulling off an evening glove’. We’d made a mistake in leaving out the wrap-in-newspaper stage, which helps to disengage the outer leaves.

The calçots were good…. but not so good, we felt, as to justify all the palaver. What was, however, a revelation was the romesco sauce.

Now that really was gobsmackingly excellent, much too good to be reserved solely for eating with calçots, and worthy of a post all of its own (link above).

If you can’t find calçots you could try substituting with baby leeks, or with fat spring onions.

Other things to do with calçots

At Brindisa’s restaurant in South Kensington they serve calçot and mint croquettes, and also calçot tempura (absolutely delicious)

An alternative to romesco sauce is Nieves Barragán Mohacho’s approach: she fries them in a light tempura batter and serves with aïoli dusted with lemon zest and espelette pepper. You can try this wonderful combination at her restaurant, Sabor, in London.

Alternatively she suggests pairing your calçots with black pudding and goat’s cheese.

Calçot tempura at Brindisa in South Kensington

Season for calçots

They are in season from November to March.

Where to buy calçots

You can get calçots in the UK at Booths in Borough Market, and also Brindisa.

Further information about calçots

You can read more about the Festa de la Calçotada if you follow this link. It looks good fun.

Calçots have an EU Protected Geographical Indication.

Desperately looking for a way to display your calçots? I thought so. Look no further – follow this link.

“Braised quail tucked inside buttery pastry caskets seemed a trumpery to them, as it seemed a trumpery to me not so many years ago as I sat at El Bulli wondering why I wasn’t in front of some small tottering table in the ancient village of Sarrià hung high in the hills above Barcelona, dragging charred baby leeks, thin as my finger, into a little pot of romesco, rather than staring at a menu that promised Kellogg’s paella – Rice Krispies, shrimp heads, shrimp heads and vanilla-scented mashed potatoes.”

Marlena de Blasi, The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club

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