Every year we try to get out to Barcelona to celebrate New Year and the arrival of the Kings on January 6th… it elongates the festive season beautifully and gives us a chance to catch up with my “Barcelona Babies” (I au-paired there a shocking 30 years ago) and their wonderful family. We always head for the hills too, to spend a few days with our friends Mercè and Jaume at their fabulous old country home El Folló in the Montseny.
I met Mercè years ago when I was researching my first book, The Food of Northern Spain, and was recommended to stay at El Folló and sample some of her fabulous cooking. We had so much in common: a love of travel, of good, honest food without the fiddley-faff and we both really enjoyed teaching. Fifteen years later and we’re very much in touch; Mercè has contributed a recipe to each of my books, brought a group of her students to Bristol and comes over on an English food quest whenever she can, whilst I’ve taken part in the El Folló bread festival, taught in Mercè’s cookery school and still try to visit every year. Above all we’re great friends and both Peter and Imi love to visit just as much as I do.
We sometimes hunt for mushrooms in the mountainous woodland behind the house but this year a cold snap meant that there were very few to be found, so we popped down to the Saturday market in a local town, La Garriga, instead. All the usual Spanish market suspects were there (sorry for the rather random photographs, I wasn’t really in tourist mode) – the knife grinder, the stalls of slippers, pyjamas and fancy housecoats, the compulsory selection of extraordinary reinforced corsets, the rotisserie chickens and then all the other fabulous food stuff of course.
There were piles of curly endive, the salad leaf of choice at this time of year AND, more importantly, there were calçots. These look like a cross between a spring onion and a leek, but are in fact twice- planted green onions. Calçots have soil pushed up around them as they grow, cutting out the light and encouraging the long, pale and sweet stems. There was no way that we could resist the first of the season.
We rushed back home, cleaned off the worst of the dirt, trimmed the ragged tops and then lined the calçots up in the grill racks ready to go on the fire. Over the winter there’s always a fire alight in the hearth where bread, peppers and aubergines are toasted and roasted. We even collected pine cones to lay by the embers to open up in the heat and release their waxy kernels. The calçots charred and cooked over the flames and then we wrapped them in newspaper to sweat and soften.
Meanwhile we made the romesco. You couldn’t possibly consider eating calçots without romesco sauce and since you’re unlikely to be finding many of these highly prized alliums outside Catalonia you’ll be pleased to hear that this sauce is equally fab’ with asparagus, tender stem broccoli, grilled spring onions, braised leeks, prawns, squid, lamb and so the list goes on.
So here goes for the deliciously nutty sauce. There are so many versions for this sauce but Mercè’s cuts out any frying and seemed wonderfully simple, quick and very, very moreish.
Romesco Sauce (about 10 servings)
5 dried Nyora peppers
1 small dried red chilli pepper
50g blanched almonds
50g hazelnuts, skins removed
3 ripe tomatoes
4 cloves of garlic, left in skins
a handful of parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
5-6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Set the oven to 200ºC
Rip open the dried peppers and soak in warm water for 15 minutes (if you are using nyora pepper flakes as Mercè does, or just dried sweet pimetón then you can jump this stage)
Meanwhile roast the nuts until golden and just beginning to smell wonderful, and also bake the whole tomatoes and garlic cloves for about 5 -10 minutes (you’ll probably want to take the garlic out before the tomatoes – don’t let it burn or it will taste bitter).
Drain off the peppers and remove any stalks and seeds.
Now take a food processor and make a paste of the garlic and the peppers ( or add about 1 tbsp of nyora flakes or 2 heaped tsps of pimetón). Next add the nuts, the tomatoes (skin and all) and work to a thick paste. Whizz in the parsley at the last minute.
Work in the vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and salt to taste.
The sauce is eaten at room temperature and it’s absolutely sublime. It will keep happily for a couple of days in a jar, covered with a layer of olive oil.
Should you find some calçots? Then, once they’ve softened in the newspaper it’s time for you to get your hands dirty. You simply slide the charred outer skin off the onion whist hanging on to the green top. Dip the sweet flesh into the sauce and then dangle the calçot into your mouth and munch. It’s definitely not a top menu choice for a first date…
If you really want to investigate this very Catalan, sweet onion tradition then the last weekend in January is a great time to visit Valls (near Tarragona) for the annual calçotada.