How a Spanish Onion Pulled Me Out of My Restaurant Funk

I’ve been a little down on restaurants in Spain lately. Maybe it was spending two weeks in Paris, where you’d have to try really, really hard to eat something that isn’t delicious. Or maybe it was the two-night trip north through Bilbao and Pamplona where the omnipresence of pinxtos (thought by many Spaniards to be the pinnacle of Spanish cuisine) meant this vegetarian was eating more Spanish tortilla on slices of dry bread than I’d ever care to eat.

I was craving creativity and flavor so it seemed like a swell idea to try the hot new restaurant in Madrid, Street XO, which is the more casual, much cheaper sister restaurant to THE hot spot of Madrid: The three Michelin starred, seriously pricey Diver XO. Street XO is all urban hipster grunge. The waiters and chefs wear white coats that look like straight jackets. The seats are trashcans turned upside town. The tables are propped up on cinderblocks. It also has an impressive cocktail list for Spain, where a gin & tonic is considered creative. This visit fell on day 10 of an alcohol-free month for me and I really wanted a drink.

So there we were, our little group, squatting on a pile of cinderblocks under a Streetfighter sign, a giant plastic pig’s head, and the world’s loudest speaker, when I noticed there wasn’t a single vegetarian dish on the menu. When I asked the waiter if there was a veggie option, he explained that no, there were no vegetarian options because the concept of the restaurant was to have balanced dishes and you couldn’t have a balanced dish without animal. I went all indignant vegetarian on his ass, which mostly involved me waving my finger around and conjugating verbs incoherently and listing protein-rich ingredients that aren’t dead animal, such as “frijoles” and “huevos.”

So I had no booze, no food, and I was made to feel that my choice to not eat animals is akin to choosing never again to enjoy food. Not the best night out (albeit a pretty cheap one).

Then the weekend came, and a Spanish friend invited us on a hike in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, followed by lunch in the town of Hoyo de Manzanares (about a half hour drive from Madrid). It was a warm, sunny January day, the hike was perfect, and the post-hike lunch at a place called Calsot was even better.

The calcot – kind of like a leek crossed with a spring onion – was “invented” by a farmer in the late 19th Century in the northwest Spanish town of Valls (the same town famed for its human towers called castells). The farmer dug up his spring onions and then replanted them, covered them with dirt, and allowed them to grow for an additional season. The result is a long, sweet, and creamy onion that is the center of a massive and messy meal called the calcotada. These days, Valls hosts an annual festival celebrating its native onion, but much closer to Madrid, the restaurant Calsot is a great place to enjoy a calcotada. (Note: The calcot season is November through March).

Our late-afternoon lunch went like this: First, bread and salad. Then the calcots arrived to the table wrapped in newspaper and plated on a terracotta tile to keep them warm. To eat them, you first peel off the blackened outer later of the calcot, covering yourself and the table in char and ash. Once you have a slick and creamy pale green calcot in your filthy hand, dunk it into romesco sauce (a mixture of roasted tomatoes, garlic, nuts, oil and vinegar) and dangle the onion above your mouth, then lower it on in. Yum.

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The calcotada also includes a huge platter of meats with blood sausage, chicken, rabbit, and chorizo. Meanwhile, I got filthy pulling apart charred artichokes stuffed with garlic.

For dessert, there was a Catalonian creme brulee, soft cheese with honey, and a Spanish dessert wine in a perrón, which is a pitcher with a long narrow spout. This was day 12 of no drinking, so sadly no wine for me, but I had fun watching everyone else pour booze into their mouths from a foot above their faces.

There are few things better than eating a big meal after spending the day outside. (The one thing that is better is having a big meal and a big glass of wine). By early evening, I was stuffed full of delicious vegetables and supremely happy that I had got to participate in a fun Spanish tradition that didn’t involve a baby pig, and only slightly involved blood sausage.

To calcots,

The Dame in Spain

View from hike in the Sierra de Guadarramas.
View from hike in the Sierra de Guadarramas.
Calcots roasting on an open fire.
Calcots, wrapped in newspaper, with romesco sauce.
Calcots, wrapped in newspaper, with romesco sauce.
An alcohol-free beer, salad, and charred artichokes.


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