domingo, 19 de febrero de 2012


Before the end of March, Catalans – and their guests - will have consumed an astonishing 15.7 million calçots and the season only lasts three months. Calçots, you say. What are they? There is no translation for the word into English. However, if you’d been paying close attention to my last blog you would know that they look -  and taste - like a cross between a slim leek and a fat spring onion. Roasted on an open-air fire and eaten with the fingers, calçots are a feast you will never forget.
Last Sunday Paco and Sol invited me to a calçot banquet, a calçótada, at their house on the outskirts of Tarragona. The afternoon was bright and sunny – it nearly always is here – although there was a sharp wind blowing. When I arrived with my friends Marta and Jaume there were about twenty people gathered around an open fire in the extensive garden at the back of the property. Gusts of wind were lifting the smoke tornado style before carrying it off in the direction of the Prades mountains to the south west. Rows of calçots had been arranged across a metal grill and were enveloped by the flames. When they were deemed roasted, the blackened calçots were stretchered off into a corner of the garden, where volunteers wrapped them in sheets of newspaper to preserve the heat. Fresh rows of creamy calçots were arranged across the grill and the glowing embers were fed with more wood.
         Calçots and roast artichokes are the first course. For me they will be the only course because what comes next is an array of lamb chops together with a selection of llonganiza and black butifarra. Such thick and meaty utterances could be nothing else but Catalan sausage. Not at all tempting for a lifetime vegetarian. The porrón, a traditional glass wine pitcher, is being passed around and the guests, some more skillful than others, are drinking the rich dark Priorat wine directly from its long narrow spout. It requires some skill to align the spurt of wine with the mouth, a skill which I discover I don’t possess. My coat is quickly spattered with Priorat so I hasten off in the direction of the kitchen for a glass and some water. 
     A shout goes up to say that we can commence eating. Guests gather round and bibs are handed out. Small bowls of homemade Romesco sauce have been placed along the centre of the table. Three of the women are competing to see whose recipes are most popular. Ground almonds and hazelnuts, fresh tomatoes, red pepper, garlic and olive oil are mixed into a creamy sauce that is served with calçots. I unwrap my first bundle and am surprised to note that the newspaper has kept the calçots oven warm. They are almost too hot to handle but I dig in. I peel off the blackened outer skin to reveal a soft white fleshy interior and dip it into the sauce. Then I raise the calçot high above my mouth and lower it in.  An exquisite blend of Romesco and calçot explodes on to my taste buds transporting me into an epicurean paradise. I reach for Calçot Number 2 and Jaume snaps with my camera. “You’ve been compromised.” The phallic symbolism of the calçot and the porrón could not be more graphic, but it is all part of this feast of the senses..
         My hands are blackened and peach-coloured Romesco sauce is rolling ponderously down my chin but I’m not concerned. This is unbridled indulgence and I don’t give a damn about the mess and neither does anyone else. All twenty or so of us are on our feet, because that is how the ritual is conducted, utterly engrossed in an assault on our respective bundles of calçots. Except for birdsong and the occasional gusts of wind that waft the smoke in our direction, silence reigns.
Jaume is the first to break it.
         “Some foreigner won the calçot-eating competition in Valls the other day. He ate 288 and I think you must be very close behind him, Karen.”
I hear my name and look up momentarily.
         “But I heard but he used gloves. What a wimp!”
I stretch my blackened fingers to their full length, much as a cat extends its paws, and admire them. Then I move the Romesco sauce closer and reach for another calçot
     Jaume has progressed on to the butifarra sausage with a knife and fork, so he can talk now. Others are still engaged in the calçot feeding frenzy but I’m fading. Another half dozen or so and I’ll have to withdraw. Someone else can beat that foreigner in Valls. It won’t be me, not today anyway.
         This is the 33rd calçotada that Paco and Sol have hosted in their garden. For thirty three years this group of friends has been gathering here during the calçot season, between January and March. There’s a plaque on the wall to commemorate the 25thcalçotada. When they first met, many of the guests were student rebels against General Franco’s government during the latter years of his rule over Spain. Conversation touches briefly upon the recent VIP “send off” given to Manuel Fraga, a right-wing Popular Party politician and former minister to Franco, who died recently. There are grumbles about a Der Spiegel article which has just revealed that the King of Spain apparently held certain sympathies for an attempted coup d’ état back in 1981. This surprises none of those present. Corruption also crops up in the conversation. My fellow guests are outraged that Francisco Camps, Popular Party president of the Valencia government, has been acquitted of all the charges. There is deep despair about the future, particularly given the right-wing policies of the current Madrid government and the lack of coordinated opposition to the rule of the banks and financial markets.
     Unable to squeeze in even the slimmest of calçots I wander off to wash my hands. A lemon tree toward the back of the garden is laden with fruit; there are several types of palm tree, Mediterranean pine, olive and almond trees, a modest vegetable allotment and a large pond inhabited by goldfish. When I return I notice that the robin red breast I had spied half an hour previously is still hopping around the embers, ever closer to the heat.  The temperature is dropping as the afternoon progresses. The robin seems unafraid and flits on to the back of an empty chair from where it watches the butifarra being served. After a while it is joined by its mate and together they glide over to a nearby pile of logs where a cat lies outstretched. Feline eyes follow the pair, bemused by their temerity. Jaume informs me that “They are called a pit roig in Catalan.” Peat rotch, I roll the words around in my mouth, savouring the sound much as I had done with the Romesco sauce. Even the language is part of the feast this afternoon. 

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