16.02.2013 16 °C
I’m perched on a wobbly chair swigging from a cup of woody, red wine, eagerly anticipating what is to come. February has arrived and the Calçotada season is in full swing across Catalonia. I don’t really understand what I’m doing here, or what’s about to appear in front of me, but I’m resoundingly assured that it is something which is not to be missed, that it is a true celebration of Catalan cuisine. I glance around me, inquisitively taking in my surroundings. I’m at what appears to be some kind of farm/factory. Outside there are barrels filled with calçots, giant spring onions and a local delicacy, queuing up ready to be tossed onto a giant charcoal-smothered barbecue. Smoke and flavour billows through the air and weather beaten men stand around with pitch forks and shovels, prodding the prized veg and attending to their every need. Around me, are long tables filled with families and friends clamorously chattering, debating, gossiping, their cups and plates permanently brimming with whatever the waiter bestows upon them. I ponder whether the scene being acted out before me is indeed the definition of rustic?
Before long I’m presented with a giant bib and a pair of plastic gloves. I’m perplexed. I thought we were going out for a traditional Catalan meal? But I’m fervently advised that these items are not some kind of bizarre fashion statement, but a vital tool if I’m to avoid a disastrous outcome to the day. I process the information, but confusion still leads the way. Suddenly, the feast begins. Mountains of pa amb tomàquet, the famous local tomatoey bread, are brought to the table along with piles of robust, steaming artichokes. I mirror those around me and decorate my helping with a dash of salt and oil, not forgetting a dollop of hearty romesco sauce – the epitome of Catalan accompaniments. The starters are fantastic, abounding in simple, delicious homemade flavours, and naturally I help myself to seconds.
Soon the moment arrives to don my bib and gloves and I sense, that it’s show-time. There in my protective gear I feel like a surgeon about to start work on a patient. I look around at my friends – we all look ridiculous. Before long heaped silver platters piled high with calçots are noisily and ungracefully brought over by the waiters and plonked down in front of us. Suddenly it all makes sense. Suddenly I understand the need to dress up as some overgrown plastic baby – the calçots are filthy! Smeared in blacker than black charcoal from their barbecue expedition, they indeed could do some serious damage if they were to come into contact with my clothes. I begin to worry that they could even stain my face! And I inquire as to how you even go about attempting to eat a calçot? I’m told to watch and learn.
I copy the Calçotada veterans around me who are professionally and smoothly stripping the sodden outside layer of their chosen calçot away. Then, as if it were a perfectly normal way to eat, they raise their arm and dangle said spring onion from above, then nibble away from bottom to top. “You can’t be serious!” I utter. “What’s the point in that? Why can’t I just use a knife and fork?”. I receive bellowing laughter in response. I don’t get it. So, I try it their way. Impossible. I nearly poke myself in the eye with my calçot, and escape with a mere cheek splatter – which now means it’s smeared in charcoal. Seriously, how can the others chomp away so effortlessly? Maybe it’s just me being an idiot? By now my friends are on their second. I give up, and utilize my plate and cutlery. Gasps of horror and jests are thrown my way, but I’ll be the cleanest at the end of the day.
I have to admit, I wasn’t so sure about this whole barbecued spring onion business, and had severe doubts as to their tastiness. But, I am pleasantly surprised – they really are delicious! And along with the endlessly flowing cava they are going down a treat! Soon the waiters bring over trays of butifarra sausages, sizzling lamb chops, mounds of chips, and forests of salad, not forgetting the typical mongeta beans. There is literally no room on the table or my plate for any more food. But on it goes finding spaces wherever it can. The feast is overwhelming – a quintessentially rustic, country banquet, and I’m loving every minute of it! But I am so, so full that by now I feel like the Michelin man, as though I’m going to have to be rolled home, and when I’m offered desert and coffee I give a dazed shake of my head. It has been a fantastic and unforgettable experience, really giving me an insight into true Catalan culture. But if I eat anything else, I really am going to burst. So I bid thee farewell Calçotada, and shall see you again next year!