Roasted calcots with romesco sauce for dipping, and a porron. Photo: Shutterstock
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Here's the thing about the porron, the traditional Catalan wine vessel that acts both as jug and glass: it's not the start of the drink that's difficult, it's the end.

The initial pour is easy as you tip the jug's narrow opening towards you and feel the warm trickle of red wine between your lips. It's relatively simple, too, as you draw the vessel away from you with a theatrical flourish, allowing the wine to sail into your mouth in a brilliant scarlet arc.

At some point though, you have to stop it. As your mouth begins to overflow with wine you have to halt the porron mid-stream; you have to snap it off without the arc becoming a dribble that runs down your chest. That's the trick. That's the hard part.

Cal Ganxo is in the hills of Catalonia, about an hour south-west of Barcelona. 
Cal Ganxo is in the hills of Catalonia, about an hour south-west of Barcelona. Photo: Ben Groundwater

It's something plenty of people have yet to master, too, going by the bibs laid out on the tables at Cal Ganxo today.

And it's not just the wine you will end up covered in. The main course today is a dish prone to being smeared all over hands and faces, up arms and on chests. It's food as celebration, food as ritual. And it's messy. It's calcots, long, mutant onions with sweet, delicious centres. And only in Catalonia will you be able to go to a proper calcotada, a celebration centred around the mass consumption of said mutant onions, eating until you explode, and drinking just as much from the porron.

You end up wearing a lot of it. Your hands blacken from the charred onions. Your face gets covered in romesco and wine.

The restaurant we're visiting today is up in the hills of Catalonia, about an hour south-west of Barcelona. The little hamlet is called Masmolets, a tiny collection of farmhouses amid rugged Catalan scenery, a village that would probably have all but disappeared if it wasn't weren't for Cal Ganxo, and for the calcots that grow here.

Cal Ganxo does one meal, and one meal only, the calcotada. It serves it every lunchtime from the first of November until the last Sunday in April, and then it closes for the year. The eatery draws upon history and tradition to provide this service: the history of Valls, the town just down the road where calcots were first cultivated in the late 1800s; the history of the Figuerola family, who have been doing this for generations; and the Catalan tradition of the calcotada, as much a celebration of identity as a delicious meal.

Legend has it that Xat de Benaige, a local farmer, first planted the bulb of an onion and allowed it to sprout a few shoots, piling soil on top to help those shoots grow and stay sweet and edible. He grilled the shoots over an open fire, wrapped them in newspaper to steam and then drew out the shoots' sweet, soft centres to eat.

You can tell that process is taking place again here today: clouds of smoke billow from an open courtyard, where a cook has a raging fire of grape vine cuttings going, a steel grate balanced above to hold the calcots. We wander past and into the farmhouse, taking a seat at a big wooden table, tying on the bibs, reaching for the porron, preparing for a feast.

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This stone house was almost derelict when two cousins, Pep Plana and Lluis Figuerola, discovered it in the late 1970s. The pair went about renovating and restoring the old building, and by 1980 they'd opened it for calcotades, using their grandmother Cisqueta's recipes to continue the tradition.

A calcotada, done right, is messy and rowdy, boozy and loud. You're expected to tip wine all over yourself – few people have mastered the porron. You're supposed to end up covered in the burnt embers of calcots and the blushing red of the romesco-like sauce.

We begin our meal with some olives and hunks of local bread, and attempt to drink some wine from the porron. It's a disaster, of course. Wine dribbles down our chests in a claret cascade.

Then, the calcots arrive. At Cal Ganxo they're served the traditional way, on an old terracotta tile, unwrapped from their newspaper at the table. You don't peel them like a banana, our waiter advises, but instead sift through the charred outer layers of the onion to find the white, sweet bit in the middle, and slowly draw that out. From there, dip it in the sauce, raise it high in the air, and stuff the entire thing in your mouth.

It's absolutely, spectacularly delicious. That's the big surprise. This meal isn't just fun, it's heavenly. The onions are smoky from the fire, and yet still sweet and soft. The sauce – commonly thought of as romesco, though our waiter tells us Grandma Cisqueta's recipe is different to that Catalan staple, with no hazelnuts, only almonds – is the perfect foil for the onions, nutty and creamy and rich.

You end up wearing a lot of it. Your hands blacken from the charred onions. Your face gets covered in romesco and wine. There's a basin in the front of the house where diners wash themselves off before the next course arrives.

That dish is a platter of char-grilled local meats served with white beans, artichokes and garlic mayonnaise. It's matched with a bottle of local cava, the Catalan sparkling wine. Once that's cleared, a large plate of creme Catalan arrives, wobbly at its base, topped with a rock-hard shell of blow-torched sugar.

Catalans love this tradition – you can tell. During winter they travel to the hills from the likes of Barcelona and Tarragona for calcotades with friends. Some go to impromptu feasts at local farms. Others go to dedicated restaurants such as Cal Ganxo.

They're all in today, laughing, drinking, eating their fill. Most bear the marks of the porron, the dribble of red wine on grey cloth bibs. The use of that drinking vessel, you realise, is perfectly characteristic of the calcotada itself: starting is easy. It's stopping that's the challenge.

FIVE MORE CATALAN DISHES YOU MUST TRY

PA AMB TOMAQUET

The literal translation for this is "bread and tomato". It's toasted bread that's rubbed with a halved tomato, or spread with a fine salsa. Add a little salt and olive oil, and you have snacking perfection.

FUET

This thin, dried sausage of pork meat is similar to the French saucisson. The meat is usually flavoured with aniseed and whole peppercorns, and served sliced into small rounds, often with crunchy bread.

CARGOLS

This is the Catalan word for snails, which are another foodstuff popularly thought of as French, but consumed with gusto across the border. Cargols in Catalonia are often cooked in a tomato-rich sauce, with chorizo and garlic.

ESCUDELLA

Every Catalan's favourite soup is escudella, a hearty concoction that usually involves a large meatball called a pilota, root vegetables, pasta and a meaty broth. A special version – Ecudella de Nadal – is served on Christmas Day.

ROMESCO

The classic Catalan sauce. A good romesco will contain a blend of almonds and hazelnuts, roasted garlic, olive oil, dried peppers, roasted tomatoes and red wine vinegar. It's perfect with seafood, or roasted onions.

TRIP NOTES

Ben Groundwater travelled at his own expense.

MORE

catalunya.com

traveller.com.au/spain

FLY

Singapore Airlines flies twice weekly from Australian ports to Barcelona, via Singapore. See singaporeair.com

STAY

The Hotel Mas la Boella is centrally located in Tarragona, about a 20-minute drive from Cal Ganxo. Rooms start from $191 a night. See laboella.com

EAT

Cal Ganxo is open for lunch seven days a week, from November 1 to the last Sunday in April. A set-menu calcotada, including drinks, costs €38, or $60.

Ben Groundwater travelled at his own expense.

from traveller.com.au