Sunday, February 26, 2012

Calçotada - Traditional Catalan Feast

It was 64 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny on Saturday (February 25!), the perfect day to take a one-hour train southward to the beach town of Altafulla for a traditional Catalan early spring feast: The Calçotada.

My friend, Jessica, booked a reservation for 15 of us at an organic farm in Altafulla where they grow the onion, the calçot, which stars in this feast.  To get to the farm, we took a lovely walk along the beach, and then down a wooded path where educational signs about the flora led us to the outdoor education farm where we'd spend the afternoon.

In this region of Spain, you don't go very long without stopping for a coffee at an outdoor cafe along the beach...


 A perfecto day!

The farm was called L'Hort de la Sinia (The Garden of Sinia).

The Calçotada feast is built around a small white onion called a calçot which was supposedly "invented" by a farmer near Tarragona (a nearby town in Catalunya) in the 19th century. The calçot is a type of spring onion and its name comes from how it is grown. To make the white portion of the onion longer, which is the part that you eat, farmers pack soil firmly around it. This action is the verb, calçar, and therefore the onion is called a calçot.  During the Calçotada, onions are blackened over open fires and served with a nut sauce (Romesco Sauce). All over Catalunya towns celebrate this fiesta, usually in January or February.

When we arrived, the first round of calçots were already smoking on the fire. They built the fire with grape, rosemary, and lavender branches, so the smoke was a brilliant smell!

We received an info session on the harvesting of the calçots from Joan, the farm owner. Supposedly there's a mother bulb that produces baby bulbs and then dies. Sad!


Hungry and waiting...

These are how Catalans traditionally drink wine. The trick is to straighten your arm completely so the wine streams in an arch into your mouth and straight down your esophagus. The other trick is not to spill it all over your shirt.

The table is set up with calçots and romesco sauce.

Romesco Sauce is so yummy! This is what you dip the onions in. 
Romesco sauce originates from Tarragona, when fishermen of the area made it to eat with fish. It is also good on meat, bread, on anything really.

These are the ingredients (as listed on

  • 12 blanched almonds or almond slivers
  • 10-12 hazelnuts
  • 1 head garlic
  • 1 slice stale bread
  • 2 ripe medium size tomatoes, or 1 large tomato
  • 2 large roasted red peppers, well-drained
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup red wine or sherry vinegar (approximately)
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes or small hot pepper (optional)

The farmhand gave us a lesson on how to eat them. First, you grab the charred skin at the top and slide it right off the bottom.

Then you dip it in the sauce.

Then in your mouth.
But don't eat too many, because next you move to the other picnic tables to eat round two: meat!  Blood sausage, regular sausage, and pork chops!

Then dessert and coffee/tea.

Then a walk around the farm with your new food baby!


A little sketching...
A siesta....

Then a walk home along the beach to the train station, stuffed and happy after a slow day in the fresh air with good food and friends!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

My Introduction to Miró

Currently at the Museum of the History of Catalunya, there is a special exhibit of Catalan art, Joan Miró's (1893-1983) poster work. His work in the later years of his life was a passionate response to the Spanish Civil War and the first months of the Second World War in France. Under the political restrictions of Franco's regime, Miró remained a symbol of international culture.  His paintings of the late 1960s and early 1970s became a sign of resistance and integrity in the final years of the regime.  This particular exhibit included posters he had been commissioned to create for various political intentions during that time period.  

Here's a little bit about him: Joan Miró was a Catalan artist who produced work during my favorite turn-of-the-century. I love what was conspiring with art and literature in Europe from the the 19th to the 20th century. Miró went to the same art school in Barcelona as Picasso, Escola de Belles Artes de la Llotja. But his art speaks to me, maybe more than Picasso's.  When he branched away from realism, his art took a symbolic twist, paring down to essential shapes. One biographer wrote, "He expanded painting to the point where it intersects with poetry."  Perhaps this is why I am drawn to it.

Around 1918, during his "poetic realism" stage, he was painting outside and meditating at the same time. Here's his voice from that time period:

"The moment I begin to work on a canvas, I fall in love with it, the love that is the daughter of gradual understanding.  A slow appreciation of the manifold nuances, the concentrated glory of the sun.  It is a joy to await an understanding of a blade of grass in the countryside- why belittle it? This blade of grass that is equally as beautiful as a tree or a mountain." -Joan Miró

Sounds a bit Walt-Whitman-influenced.

He spent a third of his life in Barcelona. The rest of the time was split between the Tarragona countryside, the island of Mallorca, and France. He was even part of the crew who moved to Paris in 1920 to cavort with Picasso, Hemingway, Joyce, and friends.

But the leitmotifs Miró is famous for began to really emerge while he lived in Normandy during WWII: women, birds (the link between heaven and earth), stars (the source of imagination), and a sort of net entrapping all these elements of the cosmos.  You can see how his painting came to be called poetry. All in black lines and figures filled in with primary colors.

Even a supporter of FCBarcelona football. But of course, FCBarcelona "supported" Catalan culture even during Franco's regime, so naturally Miro would support FCB.
This a photo of a celebration which took place on September 1, 1976 with100,000 people assembled in Barcelona to celebrate the fall of Franco's regime which had suppressed any kind of Catalan nationalism. This was Catalunya's first Nationalism Day, and a proud day for Miró.

The Museum of the History of Catalunya itself is in an impressive building. It is in the Palau de Mar building facing the harbor. It was an old port warehouse which was renovated into a museum.

This was my introduction to Miró. Ironically, I was introduced to the end of his career, and so now need to work backwards to how his art evolved over the years. There's a well-known museum of his work in Barcelona which is next on my list...