In the Catalan countryside surrounding Barcelona, young, sweet onions break ground in mid-winter, growing tall and pale in the rich Mediterranean soil packed around their roots. The fertile earth guards the tender white shoots from the sun, leaving them delicate, delicious, and ready for grilling.
Calçots—as these indigenous winter onions are known in the Catalan language—are one of the most highly anticipated and cherished food traditions in a culture where such traditions abound. They are often found in city restaurants but most authentically enjoyed upon long, outdoor tables of heavy wood at rustic masia farmhouses; the iconic structures of rural Catalan life. Families journey by train or car on the weekends from Barcelona to the nearby villages to feast on calçots beginning in late January until the late days of April. The temperate climate may bring a chill, but the warm fires and profusion of young, locally-produced garnatxa, tempranillo, or cabernet sauvignon wines ably keep away the cold. (photo by Ryan Opaz)
The calçotada (a calçot feast) begins with bundles of young spring onions charred black on a smoky, sweet hay-fuel grill. Once grilled, the long stalks (about 1’ in length) are wrapped in newspaper to steam tender for some 20 minutes, then released from their tight bundles. The onions are most commonly served to each participant on a traditional clay roofing tile to help retain their heat.
Though the appeal of a calçotada is a delicious, affordable meal of truly epic proportion, the fun of the festa is found in the quirky manner in which the calçots must be consumed. With bold fingertips, one must strip the charred outer layer of the calçot away to reveal the nearly-melting inner core. The juicy stalk is dipped in one’s personal crock of salsa romesco (roasted tomato, onion, garlic, and almond puree), then dangled high above one’s head and lowered into an open mouth with gusto and devoured in one savory bite. Not surprisingly, a calçotada menu price often includes a gigantic bib that reaches from the neck to the knees, shielding one’s clothing from sauce, oil, and the rivers of wine that shoot from the communal glass pitchers—or porró— flowing down from above into thirsty mouths. The best of the best hold the porró at arm’s length and imbibe the perfect, arching, ruby stream without spilling a drop.
The second course of an authentic calçotada always includes an array of grilled meats and the quintessential Catalan sausage, botifarra. Then, when you think that you could not possibly eat another bite, rustic earthenware cocottes full of crema catalana arrive; a similar dish to the French crème brûlée, complete with rich vanilla custard, caramelized sugar, and a little spoon to shatter the golden, glassy surface with delightful little whacks. (photo by l’Antic Forn)
While the most traditional way to throw a calçotada is in the fresh air of the countryside, away from the city’s hustle and bustle, there are many excellent offerings in restaurants throughout Barcelona. For your own calçots experience, check out the following:
Restaurants where you can eat calçots in Barcelona:
El Jardí de l’Àpat
Just 250 meters from Barcelona’s famous Parc Güell and with some of the best panoramic views of any restaurant in Barcelona, El Jardí de l’Àpat is a true Catalan classic. They offer special menus all year round, from Christmas and New Year’s Eve to the summer barbecues and birthday celebrations, with grilled meats and snails being star dishes. However, their real specialty is the calçotada!
With the help of a real wood-fire, L’Antic Forn (the old oven) roasts up delicious calçots every winter and spring in the heart of Barcelona center. On a quiet street in El Raval, this old-fashioned restaurant is the perfect place to delve into the world of authentic Catalan cuisine. The menu offers an excellent selection of grilled meats, fish, and seafood, and plenty of traditional starters like stewed baby octopus in onions and “Espinacs a la catalans” (sautéed spinach with raisins and pine nuts). All year round you can find good, honest food at this neighborhood favorite, though the best is between January and April when calçots grace nearly every table.
Founded in 1987, Can Martí is the best of both worlds: a countryside feel within the Barcelona city limits. Perched in the green hills above the neighborhood of Sarrià, Can Martí offers daily lunch menus, a space for special celebrations, and even a “cyclist breakfast” of cured meats, sausages, Spanish omelettes, cheeses, and pa amb tomàquet (tomato bread) for the many who choose to spend their mornings pedaling steadily up into the Collserola Park. For the calçot lovers, Can Martí offers two menu options, one slightly larger than the other. Do like the locals and hike up to this rustic restaurant and spend an entire Sunday enjoying the scenic setting.
Found just a few blocks up from the busy Plaça Sants, the restaurant and bar Can Manel is somewhat of a local institution. Sants is one of the most fiercely Catalan neighborhood of Barcelona, and the visitor can clearly see the difference between this politically-charged, vibrant area (that was once its own little town on the outskirts of 19th century Barcelona) and the flashy, over-congested city center. Can Manel serves droves of locals every night of the week with simple but delectable Catalan essentials: grilled meats and sausages, fresh fish in various forms, roasted snails with garlic “a la llauna”, and, of course, heaps and heaps of char-grilled calçots. (photo by Ryan Opaz)
La Llar de Foc
The name of this charming little restaurant literally translates to “the hearth,” and it’s a perfect moniker. Located in the center of Barcelona’s character-rich neighborhood of Gràcia, everything from the wood-fired grill and chalkboard menus to the classic red-checkered tablecloths and farmhouse decor lets you know right from the start that an authentic meal is in store. Specializing in grilled meats, salads, and torradas (open-faced Catalan sandwiches on dense, crispy slices of toasted peasant bread), every winter La Llar de Foc rolls out the romesco and treats life-long customers to true calçot feasts—there’s nothing quite like fire-roasted calçots with plenty of red wine to wash them down! Because of the restaurant’s ideal location, a long stroll through the streets and plaças of Gràcia after your massive meal is virtually obligatory.
Note: If you have a car and a group of friends, why not do it yourself at one of the many public barbecue spots in Barcelona’s surrounding countryside. All you need is a little courage and perhaps an experienced local to guide you in the art of the DIY calçotada. Here are five places to throw your own calçot feast! (photo by Luis Marina)
Public Barbecue spaces for your own calçotada in and around Barcelona:
1) Santa Creu d’Olorda (in the Collserola Natural Park. 45 minute drive from Barcelona)
2) Torrent de Can Coll (in the Collserola Natural Park. 30 minute drive from Barcelona)
3) El Merendero (in Les Planes. 30 minutes drive from Barcelona)
4) Parc de la Trinitat (in Barcelona city. Trinitat Vella L1 metro)
5) Merendero El Pinar (in Olèrdola. 45 minute drive from Barcelona)
That said, if you’re keen for someone to expertly guide you along the way, taking you to the best Calçotada’s on this side of the Atlantic, then don’t hesitate to contact us. We’d love nothing more than to make you feel at home and your stomach at ease on a customized foodie tour of Barcelona!