It’s easy to get distracted by the picturesque seaside and stunning Gaudí architecture in the jewel of Catalonia, but for winos and spicy onions lovers, you have been missing out.
Even though I lived in Madrid for a year, had Catalan roommates and traveled to Barcelona, I never knew about the most captivating adventure in Barcelona up until my most recent trip to Europe. Surely, when Barcelona is mentioned you might think of pintxos, sangria, flamenco, the beach, Gaudi’s impressive and lively architectural sights and the ultra-sexy Spanish accent.
Well, to your surprise, there’s an amusing, messy and unforgettable dining affair that’s been around since the 20th century and rooted in scallions (green onions) luring travelers from all over Spain to gorge. That’s right, giant, tasty onions, but it’s definitely an experience like no other that you shouldn’t miss in Barcelona.
An experience of a lifetime
After a few days of finally being back in Barcelona—the glorious spring weather sprung upon us—I received a call from a former Catalan roommate telling me to be ready because the following afternoon would be a calçotada. I had no idea what this meant. All I knew was that he was taking us and a few of his friends to the countryside for a fun day. Still, considering that I was in Spain, I knew I had nothing to worry about since there would be plenty of wine. Duh! Can’t go without the Vino!
I was so pleased to hear that this was an event involving a lot of food, drinking and both familiar and new faces. In other words, kind of like a nice Sunday brunch. You get together, stuff and drink yourself silly and spend time with your favorites. Really, who doesn’t enjoy that?
We arrived to a park at the charming Valls, Tarragona (i.e. calçot central) and prepared in the most authentic way: started the fire, bundled the scallions and set the wine to full flow. As everyone joined in the feast, turned up the music and took in the scenery, we were suddenly surrounded with Catalan calçotada experts that had done this plenty of times. I took some serious notes.
Onion breath, anyone?
A calçotada is an annual gastronomical celebration where barbecued calçots are consumed in massive quantities, paying respect to the harvest of calçots in November and April. The winter barbecue has become so widely popular that restaurants in the countryside and even nearby cities offer it from December–April.
The calçots were cooked until charred or basically until they are somewhat burned and start releasing juice. They are then wrapped in newspaper to maintain the heat. As the calçots were on the grill, various meats were also placed alongside the vegetables. Meanwhile, a table was set with a disposable tablecloth, bread, wine in a porrón (a large glass pitcher) and big bowls of salsa de salvitxada, which is a sauce for the calçots. We were then handed silly paper bibs and we started wondering what we got ourselves into.
The calçots were served on terracotta tiles and everyone gathered around the table to dig in using only bare hands. Because it can get very messy, there’s a special technique to avoid ending up with black and red streaks all over your face and looking like a bloodied, charcoal-faced villain. Slide away the burnt part with two fingers, then dip it into the salsa de calçots. Tilt your head back, raise the vegetable above your head and take down the tender, saucy spring onion.
When you try this for yourself, remember to only consume the white stalk, as the green stalk is edible, but too stringy. Usually, people eat about 20-30 of the morsels and some make it a competition to see who can eat the most before the next course.
Eat slow and lots
Mounds of meat followed-up in the festivity and I’d like to warn you that wine will be splashing everywhere, as it is poured into your mouth similarly to the way the calçots are eaten, but from a large vessel. Your pals will cheer you on and enthusiastically celebrate if you manage to skillfully keep it all your mouth. Getting experimental, I discovered that the calçot salsa mixed with the meat makes for a delicious combination. Apparently, calçots are also known to be aphrodisiacs, as if the messy and exciting event wasn’t enough.
There really are endless options for fun in Barcelona, but for me—the ordinary specimen—celebrating that day at the park will forever remain distinctively sweet, as I met some awesome locals in spite of how silly I looked wearing that bib.