With the possible exception of Asturias, where every weekend of the year brings a fair or fiesta devoted to some aspect or ingredient of the traditional cooking, no region but Catalonia is so thoroughly convinced of the need to celebrate the excellence of its own gastronomy.
The four provinces of Spanish Catalonia are so rich in gastronomic fiestas that the Generalitat, the Catalan regional government, edits a special agenda, giving details of everything from the Hazelnut Fair in Riudoms to the Gastronomic Days of the Potato in Palafolls, the Apple Fiesta in Barbens, and the Festival of Renaissance Gastronomy in Tortosa. The passing year in Catalonia is a whirl of celebrations of turnips, peas, mushrooms, chestnuts, snails, chocolate, doughnuts, sardines, sausages, and so on. Such a celebration is often referred to as an aplec—a uniquely Catalan concept, combining a vindication, workshop, and party. Almost every Catalan dish of note has its own aplec, usually in the town or village most closely associated with it.
The king of them all is the calçotada. This custom was born in Valls, outside Tarragona, but has now spread as far as Barcelona. It began, like many of the world's most appealing culinary inventions, as a way of making good use of an ingredient that would otherwise have gone to waste—in this case, the onions that were missed by the harvesters in the autumn, remained in the ground over the winter,and in January or February, gave forth green sprouts from the old bulbs. In a wine-producing region where vine prunings were a traditional barbecue fuel, the idea of grilling these tender "stockings" would have seemed logical enough.
The true stroke of genius was the sauce that, over time, became the accompaniment for grilled calçots. Essentially a kind of romesco, originally from Tarragona, calçot sauce is a rich picada of toasted hazelnuts and almonds, sweet ñora pepper, tomato, garlic, olive oil, and the flesh of a tomato roasted over the same fire on which the calçots are grilling. When the calçots are removed from the coals, their outer layers charred and blackened, they do not look especially appetizing. Peel off the burned skin, however, and the interior is pellucid, tender, and sweet. The idea now is to dunk the onion in the sauce and guzzle it by throwing your head back and dangling the calçot into your waiting jaws. The oily, nutty, faintly spicy sauce and the partly caramelized spring onion form a strikingly delicious combination. It almost comes as a surprise to discover that the recipe wasn't born in the mind of a clever modernist chef but emerged from the collective consciousness of a traditional rural society.
Masia Bou is where the calçotada began. The Masia was the farmhouse of the Gatell family, who specialized in growing onions. The earliest calçotades were gatherings of friends or extended families, during the winter and early spring when the onion sprouts from last year's bulbs were at their juicy best. Over time the calçot fashion grew and grew, the Masia transformed itself from farmhouse into restaurant, and now the old place is a gigantic catering operation, a temple to the gluttonous delights of the calçotada.
To get to Catalonia from Navarre, I had roughly followed the Ebro River down its long, broad valley, from its vigorous middle age in Saragossa to its exhausted dotage in the sprawling delta where it finally meets the sea. In the hills around Valls, you could feel the closeness of the Mediterranean. In the first week of March a cold snap had gripped the rest of the peninsula. But here the ditches were alive with frogs, and fronds of new fennel gave off a sweet scent on the roadsides. Cherry and almond trees, in sudden full bloom, made snowdrifts of pastel pink and candy white.
On a Sunday during early spring, the Masia Bou has to be seen to be believed. When I drove up one day on the stroke of two o'clock, bumper-to-bumper traffic was forming on the road leading out of Valls. The restaurant was surrounded by parking lots. As at an airport, if you failed to remember in which section you had left your car, you might need to wander around for hours on your return while a gang of wardens directed the cars this way and that. When you reached the front door, a committee of greeters holding clipboards came forward in a smiling phalanx. Once assigned a table, you were guided toward it by one of the red-coated waiters barking into microphones attached to their faces. On a day like today, said a woman with a clipboard as we stood chatting by the door, there might be 1,500 people coming to Masia Bou, all expecting to eat and drink to their heart's content and possibly to its detriment.
The scale and slickness of the operation would be astonishing to anyone previously unaware of the Catalan lust for calçots. There was a fully equipped children's playground. There were gardens with tables and terraces. A monumental stone frieze by the front door paid homage to the pioneers who made the calçotada what it is today. At the back of the house was the engine room, a covered enclosure where fires of vine prunings blazed on an earth floor, and the calçots were piled up in rows on grills above the fire, filling the air with a thick, sweet smoke. I made a quick and easy calculation: if there were roughly twenty calçots per portion, and if 1,500 people would having lunch at the Masia that Sunday, we were dealing with a figure of around 30,000 calçots for the day.
It was easy enough to believe. The various dining rooms were packed with families, and each table had its pile of blackened calçots, served on a roof tile; its pot of reddish, glistening sauce; and its big carafe of local red wine. Some of the people were already finishing their lunch, the tables strewn with debris, the faces of their grinning children, like Victorian chimney sweeps, black with grime. (The Masia provides special paper bibs, for adults as well as children, or the dry cleaners of Valls would be even better off than they already are.) One couple had bravely ordered crema catalana, a caramel-topped custard that is the Catalan national dessert, but were struggling to finish it after their feast of calçots and grilled meats, dangling their spoons in midair as they gazed blankly into space. The volume of noise was prodigious. Even so, a grandfather figure at one long table had managed to sink into a postprandial snooze, his head slumped on his chest while the storm raged about him.
Excerpted from A Late Dinner by Paul Richardson. Available from Amazon.com. Copyright © 2007 by Paul Richardson. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.