Calçot producers and restaurants struggle through uncertain season
Calçotades are a traditional winter barbeque with a vegetable as the star ingredient
They're quite unusual as far as barbeques go: for one thing, they're held during the winter months, and for another, the star ingredient is a vegetable.
Calçotades are a traditional Catalan get-together where calçots – a type of onion – are grilled over a fire before being peeled and dipped into a special romesco-like sauce.
Last year, the coronavirus pandemic brought to a halt what would have been a record year for calçot producers. In the end, 16 million calçots were picked in 2020, but 25% of the crop was left unharvested - about 5 million calçots.
At the halfway point of this season, it is clear that sales are suffering again. Current restrictions in Catalonia mean that restaurants can only serve food on-site at certain hours (7.30pm-10.30am and 1pm-4.30pm) and the only potential customers are those that live in the same county.
Francesc Xavier Amill is head of IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) Calçot de Valls, the city at the center of the calçot universe.
He's reluctant to put a figure on sales at this point, but explains that 25% less vegetables were planted this year. "If we manage to sell the same number as last year, which was a bad year, that would be positive; if it is less, it will be terrible," Amill says.
IGP Calçot de Valls represents some 50 producers, and while some have tried to sell, for example, more cooked calçots, the decline in calçotades in restaurants, some of which remain closed, cannot be offset.
"It's very difficult to balance, considering that there were restaurants that ordered 50,000 and 60,000 calçots a week; here the big challenge is the restaurants, they are suffering a lot and without their full opening there is nothing to be done."
Casa Fèlix de Valls is a case in point. In a regular year they would cook more than 10,000 calçots every weekend, but despite offering a complete takeaway menu for €20 euros, sales are well down.
"We live off customers from Barcelona, Lleida, Zaragoza," explains Roc Aneas, the head of the business. "The people who live within the county have their calçots in private farmhouses; we are having a very bad time."
Valls Restaurant Association estimates there has been an 80% reduction in calçotades in 2021. Businesses are looking for increasingly creative ways to deal with the downturn, including one company that launched a horse-drawn cart tour that includes calçot and wine tasting.
What are calçots?
The calçot is a type of long white and green spring onion that is one of the most traditional foods in Catalonia. They are in season especially between January and April each year, and it is customary to eat them barbecue-style accompanied by their own unique special sauce, similar to romesco.
It is cultivated in a special way. These onions are called 'calçots' because while they are growing the farmer has to 'calçar-les' -wrap the onions with soil- many times. This process gives 'calçots' their characteristic long shape.