As our impending move to Bordeaux began to finally sink in, and I started counting our remaining days in blue-skyed Barcelona, my mind began to race, composing interminable lists of favorite things. Favorite last things. One last 3-wine nightcap on Plaza del Sol with the girls. One last wild night out with them, one last late-night falafel bowl, one last hungover Bacoa burger on the beach with them too. One last Saturday morning flauta con tortilla (“skinny sandwich”) with Ben, one last l’Abaceria market visit with sad goodbyes to our favorite vendors. There was one last sigh in each of my dearest places, one last heavy moment to take it all in. Oddly enough, I hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to leave until the moment I saw our things in boxes.
A visit to Priorat was high on my list of favorite things about life in Barcelona. It was the Priorat, after all, that first drew me to Spain and started a chapter I would grow to cherish. So I contacted my former colleague and great friend who lives there and arranged a trip out with the girls for a calçotada in January. She picked us up in Reus and we drove up the winding mountain roads, gossipping about each other’s lives and sharing our plans for the future. The calçotada was held at Les Figueres restaurant in the town of Gratallops after a pruning demo out in the vineyards and wine tasting down the street. Service: good. Setting and mood: of rustic sophistication.
A finger dipped into the romesco assured me everything was going to be ok. With calçotadas it always comes down to the romesco – the thrillingly complex, salty, sweet and nutty, orange-colored thick sauce that the calçots get lowered down into and coated with. Romesco originated in Tarragona and is often used as a condiment for grilled meat or fish, along with the emulsified and frothy, garlic-laden favorite – aioli. But perhaps romesco is best known as the star condiment of springtime calçotadas. This heavenly blend contains crushed almonds, pine nuts and hazelnuts, roasted garlic, olive oil, sun-dried bitxo/nyora peppers, ground stale bread and sometimes roasted tomatoes, red wine vinegar and shallot. Out of all these flavors those of the crushed nuts and dried peppers come through the most, combining with the oil to form something miraculous. I honestly wouldn’t mind doing a few laps in a swimming pool filled with the stuff. After the calçots are gone I spread the remainder on bread, meat, veggies – anything I can find to serve as a vehicle. If it were socially acceptable, I would eat it like a soup… But it’s not. Take my word for it. I’ve checked…
Some little pa amb tomaquet (DIY bread rubbed with tomatoes and garlic) with good local Arbequina olive oil to start… And then calçots, a type of spring onion native to Valls (in Tarragona, Catalonia), where it boasts registered EU Protected Geographical Indication status. Calçots are a bit milder and sweeter than onions and come out of the ground in sprouts, similar in shape to small leeks. The calçotada is an annual event in a town called Valls celebrating the harvest of calçots. Families also organize their own calçotadas between late November and March. The onions are arranged in long rows and grilled over the burning branches that have been pruned off local vines. Pruning happens to correspond with calçotada season so it’s not a bad way to use up the excess. The onions are then wrapped up in newspaper and served on vaulted terra cotta tiles.
You traditionally eat a calçot standing up by first peeling off the burnt outer layer (the pros manage this in just one swipe) and dipping the tender interior into romesco, before raising it above your head and lowering it tip-first down into your mouth. You chomp up to the part where the green leaves begin, swallow and repeat. Calçots are always accompanied by local “house” red wine, usually served in a porró pitcher to make serving between calçots a bit less messy. At traditional calçotadas bibs are also worn to avoid any romesco/wine spillage. Ours was at a restaurant where the onion roasting happened out back (instead of in the middle of a circle we stood around) and they were served seated at a nicely dressed table with glasses of wine and plenty of napkins (instead of a basic table outside with pitchers and no place to sit). Although I prefer the rustic way of bingeing Catalan spring onions, the classic flavors were still all there and we had just as much fun indulging in this unique culinary tradition.
At traditional calçotadas, the onions are followed by a wide array of grilled veggies and meats. Les Figueres also threw in a wonderful fresh salad of tender baby greens, tomatoes, sweet white onions, olives, seasonal figs, toasted hazelnuts from nearby Reus and some fine olive oil drizzled over the top. Although I was too excited about the meat to touch this plate I still appreciated its presence on the table, as it gave a much needed refreshing aspect to an otherwise smoky, fatty meal. Kind of like a centerpiece of pretty flowers to look at.
The classic calçotada plate includes a baked potato and baked tomato, roasted artichoke and white mongetes beans, lamb ribs, pork and sausages. In this case the veggies were separated on two different plates. One held delicious potatoes charred and sprinkled with top quality rock salt, tomato slices with oregano roasted until juicy, caramelized asparagus spears and tender slices of zucchini. It continued with roasted artichoke hearts, baked eggplant slices and some other legumes on another plate.
The meat plate was loaded with salty and delicious artisanal llonganissa sausage (a Catalan specialty), botifarra blanca white sausage and my personal favorite – the rich and flavorful blood sausage made with just enough rice and grilled until the casing is tight and crispy. The thinly sliced secret de porc and gamey little lamb ribs were also there, their smoky, fatty flavors perfectly complementing the calçots we had just before.
A plate of Catalan comfort food pulled straight off the grill – this is what my heart desired as I planned each visit to Priorat. After so much dainty tapas and light home-cooked staples, I would crave the hearty mountain fare that formed my diet for the 5 months I spent in the region. I would crave the massive orders of grilled rabbit and pork, sausage with escalivada, and pork knuckle with beans that I got used to during that time. Lunch would be at the focal point of each trip to Priorat. And so it was this time. And as always, it satisfied.
Writing this article now in Bordeaux makes me nostalgic and sad. While I’m sure that I will be back often to visit friends in Barcelona (a mere 6-hour drive or 1-hour flight from here), I will most likely not be back in the Priorat anytime soon. When I eventually return to Catalunya for a long weekend it will be to revisit my old life in BCN. Taking a day-trip to Priorat will probably not fit into the 3-day agenda. Also, my friend will shortly be leaving the region, severing even more my ties with the place.
Ironically enough, I find myself surrounded by the most prestigious vineyards in the world and chances are I could easily find the kind of hearty rustic fare that we all sometimes need to feel at peace. And I’ll doubtless get to know these surrounding in the coming months. But I will miss the Priorat – the ancient vines, terraced hillsides and ancient Montsant Mountains looming in the distance. I’ll miss the long drives, the endless tastings, the stick-to-your-ribs filling food and the feeling of being home that I got every time we passed the EL PRIORAT road sign.