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TASTY TRAVELS Pt. 2: Of Porrons, Food Comas & Calçots

For a rather small person, I can handle my food. The moment that people recognize that my physical stature belies the fact that I essentially have the appetite of a football player, there is usually a stepwise mixture of emotions and reactions akin to the six stages of grief: denial, curiosity, shock, disgust. horror, admiration. All you can eat sushi buffets fear me, sandwiches bigger than my head, beware. However, it was one lovely Barcelona day in which I finally yielded and experienced probably the most intensely blissed out food coma of my life – calçotada day.

As mentioned in my previous post, I have a fangirl-esque love of Anthony Bourdain, and his assessment of calçots as, “the overwintered mutant offspring of the onion” is fairly accurate. Like the illegitimate love child between an onion on steroids and a leek, calçots are cultivated in Catalonia by burying grown onions with their tops cut off into soil trenches and continuing to pack soil around the stems as they sprout. Indeed, the name represents the very act – calçar in Catalan loosely translates to the verb “to put shoes on”, as the soil acts like a cozy boot of earth for the onions to mature.

Thus a calçotada is a popular, relatively new Catalan tradition held between the end of winter and early March or April in which people gather to eat calçots, drink copious amounts of red wine, and feast as if it was their final meal on earth.  This particular calçotada that I experienced was set up by my study abroad program, and the group of approximately forty students began our day by hiking up Tibidabo mountain. When we had finally reached the apex, we might has well have been scratching Heaven’s belly as we were greeted by the sight and smell of heaps of calçots roasting over an open grill. And by heaps, I mean a pyramidal mountain of calçots divided into bunches of a dozen each steaming in their charred skin, followed by a blur of probably six different kinds of meat expertly tossed onto the barbeque to roast.

We began our meal by making our own pan con tomate – a fairly civilized, courteous affair with friends. However when the bibs were donned and the calçots came out, all codes of conduct went out the window as us college students devolved into a mild barbarism driven by the instinctual, hedonistic pleasures of food, wine, and good company. There is no polite way to eat a calçot – tradition dictates that you use your hands to grasp the calçot and strip it of it’s charred outer layer in a ferociously fell swoop. When the calçot is finally revealed in all of its soft, vulnerable, fleshy glory, it is lovingly dipped into salvitxada – a nutty, spiced Romesco sauce. Tip your head back and drop it into your gaping maw – then repeat, many times and gleefully ignore the layer of sauce, charred skin that begin to glove your hands.

Indeed, ignoring the intermediaries of utensils or accompanying glassware seemed to be a prevalent theme in calçotadas, as we were introduced to a porron – a Catalan glass wine pitcher that essentially functions as a wine watering can which delivers a ballistic, projectile stream of wine into the mouth without compromising any sense of hygiene. Because after your hands and face are positively covered in sauce, bits of burnt calçot, and meat grease, you might as well completely abandon all sense of propriety and pour a heavy pitcher of dessert red wine directly into your mouth too. Deceptively simple in appearance, but difficult to master, porrons ensured that we were all thoroughly splattered with wine by the end of the meal.

Food, wine and friends – the simple pleasures in life. Beyond just the calçots, there was also plate after plate of other types of food such as the aforementioned variety of meats from pork to botifarra, rustic bread, and more roasted vegetables. Time seemed to slow as our brains fogged with the euphoria of registering the amazing food, stunning surroundings atop Tibidabo, the wine pitcher that kept mysteriously refilling itself, and the slight ache in our bellies from both the quantity eaten and accompanying laughter. As we filed out of the restaurant in a happy daze, hours after we had entered, and I contemplated rolling down the mountain in a food-induced stupor, my friend told me how our tour guide asked why she had walked up to every other table in the restaurant to take photos of complete strangers. Her response? “I wanted to capture everyone’s love of food”.

– Jocelyn Chan; Photos by Leah Fishbein

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