Calçots are a kind of leek-like vegetable that are, by some fortuitous quirk, completely and utterly perfect to barbecue on open flames. I have no idea if they are available anywhere other than Spain but I will certainly be sorting through seed guides when I get home, to find out.
The Catalans certainly take their favourite scallion quite seriously. Here in Tarragona there are annual calçotades, festivals dedicated to the calçot, where you basically stuff yourself with them until you can’t take any more. The calçotade of the town of Valls is supposed to be particularly impressive – with eating competitions, liquors made of the much loved vegetable and general festivity. Apparently you can smell the cooking calçots for kilometers. Yum.
If you want to try this for yourself, you’ll need a few items that are not usually found in the average van (or even many houses). Go forth and search.
To begin, get your big bunch of calçots. Note that you always seem to need more than you think. About 5 per person will probably stop riots breaking out but to be on the safe side and to ensure a calm eating experience I’d cook about 8 (some piggy will no doubt eat any left overs). At the calçotades the champion gluttons can eat over a hundred on one sitting. Perhaps slightly excessive.
They work best as a starter because they are terribly messy to eat and you need to concentrate. You don’t need other foodstuffs filling your plate or causing your attention to wander. Remember: this is serious eating business.
Next, build a fire in your barbecue and place a rack over the flames. By ‘rack’ I mean like the rack you have inside your oven but probably with wire going both ways. If your barbecue doesn’t have a top that will let the actual flames though, you’re going to have to build a new barbecue. It is actually worth it.
Then, once you’ve got the flames going, put on as many calçots as will fit. You only need to chop off the roots at the end. It is vitally important that you do not peel your calçots. It does not matter in the least if they are dirty (I can feel the OCD anxiety from here – calm down! It is going to be o.k.).
While these are starting to cook, arrange two big curved terracotta roof tiles so that they are warmed by the barbecue but not cooking (sitting on some pieces of old grape vine, as thick as your wrist, is both romantic and functional). You will turn one of these tiles onto the other to make a little heat box to later keep your cooked calçots in while the rest are cooking (i.e., if you have flat modern tiles you’re going to have to go and find some nice authentic old fashioned Mediterranean ones). Or I suppose you could be boring and stick them in a cool oven.
Start turning your calçots. You want them to be cooked on the inside and nice and charred on the outside. This takes a while. Once you think you’ve got it, wrap this lot up in newspaper and snuggle them into the tiles. Then cook the next batch – keep going they’re all wrapped up and sitting under the tile.
Meanwhile, until you need to be setting out the paper towel, plates and your Salbitxada sauce. This last item is vital. You can buy pre-made sauce in jars or you can make your own. To do so toast and grind 4 tablespoons of blanched almonds then grind in four mildly spicy peppers (like banana capsicum) and four cloves of garlic. The stir in four peeled and chopped ripe tomatoes, some finely chopped parsley and 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar. Then blend the whole mix, slowly adding in a cup of fresh olive oil, until it’s all think and delicious. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Once everything is ready, move your tiles to the table and unwrap the first bundle. Select one calçot and hold it delicately between thumb and forefinger in your non-dominant hand and then, using paper towel, run your dominant hand down the length of the calçot, stripping off the outer layers and exposing the caramelised deliciousness within. Flop your prize around in the sauce and then elegantly transfer it to your mouth. Be overwhelmed by the tastiness and ignore the sauce running over your face and the juices dripping on your shirt. Oh yes, I told you it was worth it.