Cultivators all over Europe (and especially in Spain) not so long ago started to grow vegetables and fruits in plastic tunnels and many seasonal foods became available all year long.
There was a time when access to tomatoes stopped with the end of summer. Those who wanted them for the winter had to conserve their own in jars or buy them in tins.
Aubergines were strictly a summer veggie and during the warm sunny months Majorcans made the most of the season and pampered themselves with dishes such as tumbet and aubergines stuffed with meat and fish.
And even today, when you can buy aubergines from January 1 to December 31, there are still punctilious Majorcan cooks, and even a few conscientious restaurants, who wouldn’t even consider making a tumbet out of season.
But a few of the fruits and veggies managed to avoid the tunnel technique and they still have a certain date when they suddenly appear on the island and another when they slink away until the following year.
One of these is calçots a Catalán speciality, particularly in Tarragona and the Vals areas, that is a cross between a thin leek and a thick spring onion. The calçots, which means trousers, are grown in a special way: the seeds are planted deep in the ground and when shoots start to appear they are covered with earth. As the shoots breaks through again, more earth is piled on top.
This is how white asparagus and Belgian endives are cultivated. In all three cases the vegetables don’t see any sunlight and photosynthesis can’t take place — so they remain white instead of turning green.
The calçots are among the highlights of winter weekends and fiesta days in Catalonia when families and friends meet to chargrill them. This event is known as a calçotada and it’s a big open-air party at this time of year.
Until relatively recent years this was a tradition Majorcans only read about in the press or heard of from friends. But someone started to bring them over from Tarragona and they were on sale at the Mercat d’Olivar. Restaurant cooks got into the act and a few places were serving calçots.
But the cooking and eating of calçots is very much something that is done in the country or, at least, in the open air. It’s not something you do while sitting at a table, especially indoors.
The calçots are chargrilled over, or in, hot ashes. The connoisseurs cook them in the ashes of a huge pile of grapevine twigs, which gives them extra flavour. When the twigs have reduced to glowing ashes, the calçots are laid on top and then covered with embers and ashes and left for 10-15 minutes, depending on how thick they are.
As soon as the calçots are plucked from the ashes, bunches of them are wrapped in several sheets of newspaper and left for another five minutes or so. This finishes off the cooking of the interior parts and makes them lusciously soft.
The outer skins of the calçots are burned black and have to be peeled off in one quick and slick movement. The experts take the top end of the calçots in the left hand and use the right hand to give a deft and rapid pull of the burnt outer skins which slip off as if they were a trouser leg — thus the calçots name of the dish.
If you try to get at the white part of the calçots by scraping away the burnt outer skins it’s a cumbersome and messy chore and one ends up with filthy coalminer’s hands.
But there is more potential mess to come, because there is a knack to eating calçots just as there is a little trick to pulling off the the blackened outer skins. When you are left holding the long limp white part, it is dragged through a bowl of sauce and eaten like an asparagus spear. But it is much more flaccid than asparagus and swings about in mid-air as you try to eat it. This is done by lifting the sauced calçot high in the air, tipping back the head and then carefully lowering the calçots into a wide-open mouth.
The combination of the smoky onion taste and the highly flavoursome sauce is a gustatory sensation we don’t come across very often — one of the reasons a calçotada is such a popular event.
Anyone used to chargrilling on glowing embers will have realised that doing calçots this way presents yet another problem. It’s easy enough to put a stack of calçots on the embers but taking them off one by one when hot and burnt black would be a huge nuisance.
But tradition long ago solved this snag. The bottoms of the calçots, the thickest part, are threaded on to a piece of wire. Its length depends on the width of the embers and that is decided by the number of calçots that have to be roasted.
When the calçots have been threaded on the wire, two people take one end each and place the calçots on the ashes. The wire is long enough to leave both ends well clear of the heat. The calçots are later plucked from the ashes in a single movement: a neat wire act that saves a lot of bother. The calçots are then wrapped up in newspapers.
The sauce for calçots is called salbitxada and is made with ripe tomatoes, the pulp of ñora red peppers, toasted hazelnuts, garlic, a little fresh mint, virgen extra olive oil, fresh breadcrumbs, vinegar, salt and pepper.
In the old days the ingredients were pounded with a pestle in a mortar but nowadays most cooks would blitz them in a blender.
How many calçots per person does one serve? Some say 15 is a good portion but many people end up wanting more. One Catalán cookbook recommends 25 per person and another one, published in the 1950s, says 50 per head is normal.
At a traditional calçotada in Tarragona, the sauced calçot is placed on a thickish slice of county bread before being lifted into the air and then lowered into the mouth.
This is rather like the trencher of medieval days — the slice of bread that served as one’s plate. The juices and the sauce of the calçots seep into the bread and make it very tasty. So you end up eating your plate.
Wine at a calçotada is always drunk from a porrón, a traditional jug-like container with a long spout that is held up in the air to allow the wine to trickle out and into the mouth. This is yet another reason why one’s blouse or shirt may end up heavily stained.
At a calçotada, the calçots and their salbitxada sauce are just a good fun starter that is followed by chargrilled butifarra (a thick fresh sausage) and lamb chops. At one time the traditional dessert was spongecake served with preserved cherries, but nowadays it is usually one of the family’s favourite sweet dishes.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that we began to see calçots in Majorca and a bit later Majorcan families got into the calçots mode.
By the mid-1990s a couple of restaurants started to get in on the act but few others took it up. The calçotada is strictly bucolic and needs an outdoor setting.
A much better idea is to get together with some friends and do it yourself. But remember to wear your oldest sweaters, jeans, blouses and shirts — the ones you should have binned ages ago. If they still fit.