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In Northeast Spain, Catalonia Kicks Off Green Onion Season


Here in Iowa, it may not feel like the right time of the year for barbecues. But in northeast Spain, the middle of winter brings with it a grilling tradition where it's all about the green onion. Every weekend, family and friends get together to grill the onion and eat it with a traditional Catalan sauce. As Lucia Benavides reports, the official onion season kicks off with a day-long celebration in a small Catalan mountain town.


LUCIA BENAVIDES, BYLINE: It's the dead of winter. And even though it's cold in the town of Valls, just an hour and a half from Barcelona, the Mediterranean sun is strong enough to make some people shed their jackets as they sit in the central plaza eating a traditional Catalan onion called a calcot. It's the season's biggest calcot barbeque, or calcotada.

ALFONSO DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BENAVIDES: Alfonso Diaz (ph), from Barcelona, says he came for the atmosphere. He's here with a big group of friends who take various selfies before digging into their food.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BENAVIDES: "It's like a ritual, a tradition for friends like us to get together," he tells me. He jokes that these onion-themed barbecues prove that Catalans are ahead of their time. They were vegan before anyone else was.

DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish, laughing).

BENAVIDES: Calcots are rarely eaten outside of Catalonia. In fact, the tradition comes from this very town. In the 19th century, a farmer from Valls realized that some of his onions left from the previous season were producing soft and sweet sprouts. People began to grill the vegetable and hold big barbecues. Rafael Castells (ph) organizes Valls' calcotada.

RAFAEL CASTELLS: (Speaking Spanish).

BENAVIDES: "Our barbecues today are exactly as they were 80 years ago," he tells me.

CASTELLS: (Speaking Spanish).

BENAVIDES: "Calcots are good for the digestion. They're diuretic, and they're an antioxidant," he says. There's a whole artform to eating a calcot, which looks like a leek. First, you peel the outer skin, which is charred from the fire. Then, you dip the interior into a traditional Catalan sauce called romesco, made up of a mix of tomatoes, almonds and dried peppers. Finally, you dangle it high over your head and slowly lower it into your mouth.


BENAVIDES: For many, it's a celebration of Catalan culture. The festival includes traditional dances and a parade led by a gigantic green onion. Twenty-eight-year-old Albert Oliva (ph) is dressed in a typical 19th-century outfit and talks to me in the regional language of Catalan.

ALBERT OLIVA: (Speaking Catalan).

BENAVIDES: "Calcotadas are a way to understand our personality," he says. "Or at the very least, it's an excuse to delve into the typical Mediterranean diet" - led, first and foremost, by an onion.

For NPR News, I'm Lucia Benavides in Barcelona.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMATITO'S "DESPACITO (BULERIAS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.