Ode to a Catalan Onion

ode to a calcot

El calçot. /əl kəl.ˈsot/ Language: Catalan. Meaning: The most beloved little onion in the world. Well, Catalonia, at least. 

I’ve put down roots in a region that boasts some of the best cuisine in the world. I’m not just talking Spain, but Catalonia in particular. Ferran Adrià’s restaurant El Bulli (now closed), just up the Costa Brava from Barcelona, landed Spot #1 on Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 list of the world’s best restaurants a record 5 times. The Adrià brothers are now turning food into science and science into food and serve up deconstructed eggs and olives and soap foam or whatever, and despite paying more for a “fresh take on a hotdog” than you would for 30 takes on an old hotdog, people still come back for more.

Catalonia is world-renowned for its food scene. It’s not just paella and ham up in these parts, nor is it all science on a plate. It’s fideuá and fresh seafood and escalivada and fried bombas. It’s spicy patatas bravas and meaty escudella and a lighter take on lobster bisque.

So I’m bombarded by food choices every single day. But you know what I was most dying to try since the season started back in January?

Burned onions. 

The Catalan Calçot

That’s right. In a land full of foodie delights, the one dish I couldn’t get out of my mind was the calçot, a sort of cross between a leek and a green onion. Calçots were originally cultivated in the town of Valls, about 100 km west of Barcelona, and today, the largest calçot festival kicks off the season every year there. But the onions have now made their way all throughout the autonomous region of Catalonia, and people have been happily stinking of onion breath ever since.

How can one hold an onion in such high esteem? And a blackened and disintegrating one, at that? That’s what I thought, and then I tried them.

Calçots are the opposite of molecular olives or eggs. They’re the opposite of daintily charred crema catalana (like crème brûlée); they’re the opposite of anything you’d think to beautifully photograph, or, quite frankly, salivate over eating. Calçots are not considered palatable until they are literally burned to a crisp, the outer layer a thin sheet of carcinogenic ash.

cooked calçots

Cooked, blackened calçots

But it’s like our mothers have been telling us since we were old enough to believe it: It’s what’s on the inside that counts.

To eat a calçot, you must peel off the outer layers to reveal the slightly sweet, perfectly tender (and unburnt) inner onion flesh. You then take this flesh and dip it—douse it, really—in a nutty, peppery romesco sauce, and then down the onion in one mouthful. Admittedly, I think people are really in it for the sauce—an onion is great and all, but at the end of the day it’s an onion. But when you smother it in smokey romesco, it becomes elevated to Saint Food. Real calçot aficionados, or basically, Catalans, can polish off 20-30 of these things. I ate 10 and then had to call it a day.

eating calçots

This is how you eat a calçot.

Calçot season is like a shining beacon of hope in wintertime, a time of year when nothing really good happens unless you like skiing or Hallmark cards. Calçots are grown from January–April, and during this time, you’ll often hear talk of “calçotadas” put on by family and friends, meaning massive barbecues of onions and meat. If you’re like me, and are unlucky enough to fall ill with a fever on the day of your scheduled calçotada, you can also head to a restaurant. Restaurants often serve calçots as a first course, and many places will have calçotada prix-fixe menus, serving the onions as a starter, followed by massive amounts of grilled meat, drinks, and dessert. Added bonus: most places will include a little moist towelette, which you will definitely need at the end of stripping those blackened layers with your bare hands.

The Adrià brothers can keep doing weird things with flamethrowers and liquid nitrogen. Michelin-star restaurants can keep serving tiny morsels of bread topped with truffle tears. Regular bars can keep on dishing up drool-worthy Spanish omelette, crispy fried croquettes, and thinly sliced red ham. All of this is very, very good.

It’s just, well, the humble calçot is simply great.

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  • I think I would live off of romesco sauce if I could! It´s delish in Madrid but I can only imagine the godliness of it in Barcelona. Love this post!

    • What do they eat it with in Madrid? Catalans claim to have invented it, but there are a lot of claims being thrown around these parts….
      Glad you enjoyed the post! :)

  • lorriegoldin

    Yum! And I agree, it’s the sauce (the secret to artichokes, escargots, and, no doubt, oysters, and such (though you will catch me eating crickets before those latter guys go down my gullet).

  • Ashley Duncan

    truffle tears hahaha