Last updated: November 2017
As any adventurous traveller knows, the difference between a good trip and an incredible, unforgettable experience is in the details. Are you staying somewhere you love in an unquestionably cool location? Does your holiday itinerary of sightseeing, visiting museums or hanging around in late night skater bars truly match up with what interests, excites and stimulates you most? And for the gourmets out there, are you really discovering the Catalan cuisine which has mouthwatering flavours that are a million miles away from microwave-defrosted paella?
If you’re visiting Barcelona this spring we recommend you try a unique and popular seasonal specialty: calçots. The closest translation of this fine vegetable would be “scallion”, or “long, funny onions.” But fear not, your face won’t be blown off by a sharp blast of eye-watering onion intensity as instead they have a mild leek-like flavour, and are served with a delicious romesco sauce. Calçots and romesco go together like turkey and cranberry jelly or like gin and tonic. Unlike a simple sparkling tonic, however, romesco sauce is packed with fresh flavours. Think tomatoes, peppers, garlic, almonds, bread, and extra virgin olive oil. Yes, this truly is local Catalan cuisine at its very best.
How are calçots best enjoyed?
Eating calçots in Barcelona is as messy as your inner child is allowed to get away with. The pile of steaming, char-grilled, up to 25cm long onions is usually brought to the table wrapped in newspaper to keep them warm. First you need to peel away the blackened outside layer that reveals the soft white onion inside. The calçot is then generously dipped in romesco sauce, and you tip your head back, lifting your prize and lowering it into your mouth. Large paper bibs are provided for the occasion for obvious reasons.
Groups of friends love to get together for a calçotada in Barcelona, accompanying the star dish with Catalan-style rustic bread rubbed with fresh tomato and drizzles of olive oil. This is generously washed back with plenty of red wine drunk from a porrón. Tip your head back and aim the fine stream of wine towards your mouth. After all, you’re already wearing a bib…
So what exactly are calçots?
It is said that calçots were first grown in Tarragona by a farmer called Xat de Benaiges, in the 19th century. He discovered that by taking the onions out of the soil for a few months and replanting them in winter several shoots sprout from each onion. These edible parts remain white instead of turning green, and they become calçots. A similar method is used for cultivating white asparagus. In Catalan calçar means “to put your shoes on,” and it’s as if these onions are “shoed” by the earth from which they then re-emerge.
Calçots grow from November to April and are ideally cooked over an open-air barbecue under the first rays of spring sunshine. The Catalan countryside is scattered with olive trees; their dry branches make perfect firewood for cooking calçots with a delicious smoky flavour. Many rural restaurants, or macías offer a calçotada menu.
For a special calçotada experience near Barcelona we recommend you visit La Vinya Nova, where calçots are prepared at the weekends. This macía is located about 45 minutes outside Barcelona at the foot of Montserrat Mountain. It is surrounded by fields of olive trees from which they make their own oil, as well as vegetable gardens where much of the food they serve is grown. To get there by public transport, take a Hispano Igualadina bus from Maria Cristina to the town of Collbató (it’s the third stop in Collbató, ask the driver!) From here it’s just a short 15 minute walk across the fields to get to La Vinya Nova.
Plenty of restaurants in Barcelona also offer a calçots menú. The chain El Mussol prepare them nicely and do a great romesco sauce. Their restaurant locations include Carrer d’Aragó, 261 and Calle Casp 19, which are both just off Passeig de Gràcia. The traditional tavern-like El Glop, on Sant Lluís 24 in Gràcia is also recommended.