It’s that time of year again and as I prepare to barbecue a big bundle of calçots in my rather blustery backyard the whole celebration is tinged with sadness. Because these long thin Catalan onions that resemble a leek (but aren’t related) will forever be associated with Lunya in the Barton Arcade and Iberica in Spinningfields. Both these now departed Hispanic standard bearers in Manchester hosted jolly, messy events around that quirky veg’s brief season. Bibs were essential as the charred objects of our desire, fresh from the coals, were dipped in a pungent Romesco-style sauce and accompanying wine was poured from a great height from needle-nosed porróns.
Calçots’ journey from plot to plate is far more epic than your supermarket spring onion’s. The Catalans plant them in early autumn, traditionally as the moon is waning, then a few weeks later, when the shoots have pushed up, transplanting them. The following summer they are harvested and stored in a dry place to germinate again, then in August/September they are trimmed and replanted in trenches.
Now the fun starts. Let Colman Andrews, author of the still definitive Catalan Cuisine (1997) take up the story:
“As they begin to sprout once more earth is packed around the new growth to blanch it (as done with chicory and celery) – and this is how calçots got their name, from the verb C, to put on boots or shoes. (The Catalan word for shoe, in fact, is the almost identical calçat. Compare the Italian word calzone, ‘big stocking’, meaning a stocking-shaped turnover pizza).
“By the time the calçots – as many as 12 or 13 of them from each large onion, seven or eight from each smaller one – are harvested in January and the ensuing few months, they have become not only much larger but much milder and sweeter. And because of their ‘shoes’ of soil, at least half their length is white.”
What was once a seaside speciality around Tarragona province, is now commonplace across Spain, as ubiquitous as paella or churros. A colleague noticed Manchester’s acclaimed 10 Tib Lane is currently serving leeks with romesco, saving on the air miles for the real thing.
In truth the annual La Calçotada wasn’t remotely on mind until a visit to Liverpool this week for the opening of Daniel Heffy’s impressive new restaurant NORD. En route I happened upon the original Lunya restaurant/bar/deli, where founders Peter and Elaine Kinsella retrenched after their Manc exit. And there for sale was a stack of calçots, in all their earthy prime, which I snapped up on impulse, The Kinsellas will be hosting their own Calçotada this Sunday afternoon (March 26) at Lunyalita at Albert Dock, with not just calçots smoking on the grill but also a selection of grilled meatsand yes, the cava will flow. For afters, crema catalana, naturally. My more modest party at the same time may feature fino sherry en rama, my preferred tipple, decidedly un-Catalan. but hey I will, of course, have make my own take on Romesco (recipe below).
I’ll endeavour to char the calçots almost black, wrap them in newspaper as tradition demands.To be topical, I used Times columnist Matthew Parris’ caustic consignment of Boris Johnson to history’s scrap heap. Leave them to steam for 20 minutes, then gingerly peel open the sweet insides from their feathery casing. Serve them simply with lashings of romesco and garlicky tomato bread. The Catalans serve them in long terracotta roofing tiles to keep them warm, but it’s not my priority, obviously.
200g piquillo peppers
6 garlic cloves, unskinned, raosted for 20 minutes
6 plum tomatoes, roasted
100ml sherry vinegar
250ml olive oil
1tsp smoked paprika
150g blanched almonds
juice of ½ lemon
Toast the almonds in a dry frying pan for 3-4 mins until starting to turn golden and smelling toasted. Shake the pan often to turn them. Tip out and leave to cool, then grind. Roast the tomatoes in the oven until soft and sticky
Drain the red peppers and tip into a food processor with the almonds, breadcrumbs, tomato, lemon, garlic, vinegar and smoked paprika, then blitz to a chunky mixture.
With the motor still on, slowly drizzle in the olive oil to make a coarse sauce. Season well.