Calçots are a Catalan creation and their love of them borders on obsession. They are really only glorified spring onions but the time it takes to grow them (one and a half years), the care that goes into their cultivation and way they are celebrated in Ibiza raises them to a higher level.
Ibiza was once part of the Paissos Catalanes, an area that went as far south as Valencia and in the north-east over the Pyrenees into France. The Catalans were great mariners their sea conquests stretching as far-east as Sardinia and as far south as the Balearics. Their language went with them and remains spoken to this day. The name has changed – the Valencians speak Valenciá and the Ibicencos speak Ibicenc, but the language is essentially Catalan. However ask an Ibicenco if he is a Catalan and he will take offence!
Fortunately the calçots have made it across the water but whilst celebrated they aren’t held in such reverence. The only time I have eaten them in a restaurant here they came six on a plate with a tiny bowl of sauce and as part of a more fancy meal. Calçots are anything but fancy. Calçots are messy and they are supposed to be messy. They are also meant to be eaten in great gorging quantities and preferably in plenty of company with plenty of wine.
When we do them, we use an old bed frame we found beside the road. A raging fire is built, traditionally with the vine cuttings from this years pruning, the bed is placed over it and whilst still flaming the calçots are lain on the bed. The fire chars the outside of them and makes them look entirely inedible. Fear not. The advantage of using a bed as the grill is that it can be lifted off and the onions turned without burning yourself. They are then returned to the fire and kept there until the inner layers are softened. When they come off the fire, totally blackened, they are wrapped in newspaper to continue steaming and are placed in roofing tiles, which keeps the heat in and double as plates of sorts.
20 minutes or so later you unwrap your parcel and take out the calçots one by one. You pinch the root end loosening the soft white tendril within and with the other hand you pull out the insides leaving the charred husk behind. You then dip the calçots in the specially prepared salsa para calçots, a superb spiced nut and pepper sauce, tip your head back and lower the dangling beauty into your mouth. You then repeat this until you can eat no more. If you have done this correctly, your left hand will be black, your chin will be dotted with sauce and your stomach will be roaring with applause. You will be inebriated and in need of a breather and a sit down with a refreshing glass of wine. This is to ready you for the main course – lamb. Of which more another time.
Salsa para calçots
This can be made in a blender or mortar and pestle
10 roasted hazelnuts
10 blanched almonds
1 tomato (roasted whole then peeled and deseeded)
½ head of garlic, cloves unpeeled and slightly crushed
1 ñora pepper (broken open, deseeded, soaked for 1 hour and flesh scraped off with teaspoon, skin discarded)
1 tsp pimenton picante
2 tblsp good red wine vinegar
Plenty of good olive oil
Put a nice pool of oil in a pan and fry the almonds and garlic. Remove them as they become golden – the almonds will get there first. Let them cool a minute and then crush the almonds and hazelnuts together to form a paste. Then peel and add the garlic. When that is paste too, add the rest of the ingredients except the oil. Mash them into the paste and start adding the oil, stirring all the while. Check for seasoning and acidity – the result should be a thick, picante sauce with a gentle bite of vinegar.