Here in Barcelona we have tomatoes in January. This is thanks to the enormous greenhouses in southern Spain, in a region called Murcia. It is said that the greenhouses in Murcia are so large that they are one of the few manmade objects that can be seen from space.
The tomatoes from these greenhouses are not very good. Greenhouses of space-age proportions do not provide the best environment in which to nourish food that nourishes. But they do create an environment that is able to fuel the ‘get what you want when you want it culture’ that is now permeating Europe since it was first imported from the United States some fifteen years ago.
And what the greenhouses are unable to provide can always be imported from China.
But it is not January. It is the end of May. And the rains we so desperately hoped for in April have finally begun to fall. The end of the drought is tentatively announced. The city’s water supply has risen to such a level that the ban on watering gardens has been lifted and the fountains have begun flowing again. The air smells greener. For the last few months they have been bringing water up from the Murcian desert, together with the tomatoes.
Yes, the rains of May have washed away the dirty threat of water rationing, which will not be missed. But they also mark the passing of a season that comes but once a year to Catalonia whose return next year we all look forward to.
The season of the calçot.
Calçots are in the onion family. They have been described as a cross between a leek and a spring onion or green onion, without actually having any direct relation to any of the three. Calçots are now the only food that you really have to wait for. Tomatoes in January. Plums in March. Mangoes when you want them. Mangoes don’t even grow here. They import them from Brazil. But not the calçot. You can only find them from February to April. By the end of April they’re hard to come by. And you can only find them in Catalonia, particularly in the province of Tarragona. It is a culinary tradition that Catalans hold fast to. And to see how the Mediterranean diet they delusionally lay claim to is being replaced by fritanga and meals that come in boxes, it is truly heartening to spot the Hay calçots signs that begin to spring up in restaurant windows just when the buzz from the holidays has worn off.
The calçot is one of the last bastions of locally produced and, perhaps even more importantly, locally celebrated foods remaining here.
And how they are celebrated!
The calçot, like any good food, is as much ritual as it is nourishment. It is celebrated in such ritualistic fashion not recommended for the faint of heart. They are traditionally grilled over open flame and eaten as an accompaniment to grilled lamp and are usually served in clay roof tiles sometimes lined with newspaper. When they hit the table, the rite begins and everything you ever learned about table manners and proper etiquette is roguishly pushed aside.
It is a ritual only for those who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Oh, it is messy – your fingers blackened with the soot of the grill as you peel off the first layer of skin, which slides off easily, to get to the sweet warm center. The soot mixes with the calçot's sticky juices and gets under your fingernails and refuses to leave.
And it is a ritual only for those who don’t mind looking ridiculous. Calçots are usually eaten standing up. The first layer of skin is peel away and the calçot dipped into salsa romesco, a reddish sauce made with hazelnuts and red peppers. The appropriate stance must then be taken. Some find it most comfortable to stand with their feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. The head is tilted back and the calçot, dripping with romesco sauce, is raised over the head and lowered into the mouth, inadvertently getting sauce all over your face and occasionally in your hair. Bibs are recommended for novices.
And it is a ritual only for those who relish in copious amounts of red wine and laughter, as everyone enjoys the fun and soot and ridiculousness of the moment. The addictiveness and the deliciousness of the rite ensures that twenty to thirty calçots will be eaten per person. Bloated bellies promise that the subway ride home is to be among giggles and accidental gas leaks. So it should be added that is also a ritual only for those who are comfortable making references to bodily functions in the presence of friends and strangers alike. It also helps to find the word pedo absolutely hilarious.