London Calçotades: Where And How To Eat Catalan Spring Onions

By Lydia Manch Last edited 15 months ago

Last Updated 06 February 2023

London Calçotades: Where And How To Eat Catalan Spring Onions
It's that time of year. Image: iStock/nito100.

This includes an update of 2015 original content by Sejal Sukhadwala and Helen Graves.

'Tis the season to throw a huge crop of Catalan onions on a live fire and then eat them, messily.

A Catalan delicacy, calçots are an oversize spring onion, sweet and mild when grilled over a flame. Traditionally they're eaten during the annual harvest of calçots — from Jan to April — in a celebration called the calçotada: a big, jubilant, ceremonial harvest feast, with a handful of London restaurants throwing their own takes on the event.

A lot of food, a lot of live-fire cooking, and a fair amount of pageantry. And a socially acceptable way to cover yourself in sauce and wine. What's not to like?

Know your onions

The calçot: In the allium family and sporting Protected Geographical Indication status, calçots (pronounced 'kalsots') are grown in Valls, a town in the Tarragona province in Catalonia. Looks like the lovechild of a leek and a spring onion, but with a much milder, mellower flavour than you'd expect from either — particularly after a grill over the flames. About 15-25cm long.

The calçotada: (pronounced 'kalsutada' or 'kalsotada'). In Spain, calçotades traditionally take place at rural restaurants, in countryside farms, or in the gardens and rooftops of people's homes. The onions are grilled — flame-roasted, on vine shoots — until the outer layers are charred, wrapped in newspapers to keep them warm and steam-cook them further, then served on terracotta tiles.

Romesco, or its close cousin salvitxada, are the dipping sauces — made from nuts (usually hazelnuts, almonds, pine nuts or walnuts), local nyora peppers or bitxo chillies (or sometimes with regular red peppers) and olive oil. Nuances of the recipes vary, but tomatoes, onions, garlic and red wine vinegar might get a cameo, plus some stale breadcrumbs or toast to thicken.

Calçotada season, baby. Image by iStock/nito100.

The Spanish tradition

When the calçots have been cooked, bread and meat are brought in for a turn on the dying embers. That might include lamb steaks and botifarras — fresh local beef sausages flavoured with garlic and herbs. Trad sides include fried potatoes and white beans. The dinner's rounded off with oranges for dessert, plus a liberal scattering of red wine, cava, music and dancing.

How to eat a calçot

An art and a science. Hold it firmly from the top of the green leaves. Then peel off the charred outer leaves fast — or they might not come off easily — and swoop the white part through the romesco, getting a thick swathe of sauce. Then tip your head back, hold up the calçot and dip it into your mouth to eat, discarding the green leaves at the end.

This is the gold standard of technique, but advice that we've never mastered. The calçots texture's slippery and a bit fibrous, the leaves are kind of tenacious and sometimes tricky to prise/bite free. A lot of restaurants and calçotada events will supply bibs as standard: take them, but don't expect them to be more than a token gesture. If you finish without sauce on your face, and in your hair, and sliding down your wrists, and in a starburst all over your table, were you at a calçotada at all?

Tell me about this porrón

Compounding the reasons not to wear white to a calçotada: the traditional porron, a kind of spouted flask for sharing wine or cider with a group. You pour it into your mouth single-handed from a height, with the seasoned pros extending their arms out as they pour, giving a graceful arc of wine.

That's the theory. For novices, the reality's a chaotic jostle of arms and elbows and complex angles, with the potential to cover everybody in a 2-metre radius of you with friendly fire. Embrace it like Anthony:

Where to eat calçots in 2023  

Morito, Hackney

Never need much excuse to find our way to Morito, but their calçotada dinner series this year is a good extra nudge. Hackney Road's small, buzzing, Spanish-meets-North-African tapas restaurant's throwing a series of dinners every Sunday in February, with tables at 5.30pm or 7.30pm.

The four-course menu's £40 a head, including: an El Bandarra spritz; gilda (moment of appreciation for the way these seem to be trending their way back onto restaurant and bar snack menus); calçots, obviously; a choice of traditional stews for a main course — including chicharrones, a seafood stew, and a vegan option with beans, and a tarta de Santiago for dessert.

Morito, Hackney

Brindisa, Richmond and Battersea

Brindisa have form: they've been throwing calçotadas for about a decade now. The Brindisa calçot supperclub's, on paper, a three-course menu — but with the main course actually a lavish, multiple dish, triple-meat job (and a vegan version on offer). £60 a head includes a spritz to start, and three porróns of matched wine. Dinners are at their Richmond branch on 8, 18 and 25 Feb, and at Battersea on 15, 18 and 25 Feb.

And if you feel like hosting your own calçotada this year? We've seen calçots on sale at Brindisa online, or from their Borough market stall.

Brindisa, Richmond and Battersea

José Pizarro on Dishpatch, delivery across London

More calçotada-inspired than calçotada-traditional, this meal kit for delivery from José Pizarro's a vegetarian meal with the spring onions featured as a calçot and romesco arroz caldoso (a rice stew). Supporting snacks include olives, croquetas and padrón peppers. The meal kit's £50, and serves two, and it's available for delivery every Friday in Feb and March.

José Pizarro on Dishpatch, delivery across London