Rich Sauces, Regional Dishes
Calçots are flame-grilled over last year's vine cuttings. Jeff Koehler/©ICEX
Author: Jeff Koehler/©ICEX
Publication Date: 21 Feb 2011
Two of Catalonia’s most famous regional specialties are found just south of Barcelona—'calçots', grilled green onions eaten with a rich, nutty sauce—and 'xató', curly endive salad tossed in a similar sauce and topped with salted fish. Exploring their roots affords a glimpse of truly authentic Catalan culture.
ItinerariesValls – Nulles – Santes Creus – Vila-rodona – Poblet – L’Espluga de Francolí – El Vendrell – Vilanova i La Geltrú – Sitges
Route typeRural / Urban
Length155 km / 96 miles
Getting thereFrom Barcelona, Valls can be reached by the AP-7 autopista. To return to Barcelona from Sitges, it takes about 30 minutes on the C-32.
Artistic heritageAncient monasteries, modernista bodegas
We begin our route on a late Saturday morning and head straight to Valls, the center of calçot production. Calçots are a variety of long, thick green onions (they look like skinny leeks) that have their peak season in January, February, and March. The popularity of the calçotada, essentially big feasts of calçots, began at the end of the 19th century, and has steadily grown in popularity since. “Calçot de Valls” now has Protected Geographical Indication, a status that guarantees the quality and geographic origin of the product.
We go directly to Masia Bou, a “pioneer” restaurant on the north side of the city that has been serving calçots since 1929. We’ve come this far so we order the complete, dauntingly filling menú calçotada which includes around 20 calçots, a large plate of butifarra de Valls amb mongetes (fresh sausage with white beans—and plenty of allioli, garlic sauce), an equally large plate of xai a la brassa (grilled lamb accompanied by roasted potatoes and artichokes), and, for desert, some rich crema catalana, a local version of crème brûlée with the burnt sugar crust. And of course, wines, cava, coffee…
But first things first, beginning the star attraction: calçots. They are flame-grilled over last year’s vine cuttings and served in an upturned terracotta roof tile. After putting on one of the large bibs that they offer, we start by “peeling” off the blackened outer layer of a calçot and then dip it in liberally into the sauce. Now, holding it above the head, we eat from the bottom the soft white part of the calçot that is slathered in sauce. No need to wipe your blackened hands yet. There are 19 more calçots to go.
The secret lies in the sauce. Normally consisting of roasted tomatoes and garlic, dried sweet red peppers, toasted almonds and hazelnuts, and extra-virgin olive oil and some vinegar, the recipe of course changes from house to house. And in this house—opened by the current owner’s parents—is divine!
After lunch, we walk around Masia Bou’s ample grounds. Out back, we watch them grilling calçots, laying them in layers on a large mesh grill, and turning with long steel pinchers. On a busy weekend in the “season,” they grill around 30,000 calçots in a single day.
Modernista Bodegas and Cistercian Monasteries
Now that we’ve had our calçots, it’s time to check out the immediate area. In Nulles, about 10 minutes south of Valls, we stop for a moment to admire the modernista “celler” (bodega) designed by Cèsar Martinell (1888-1973) at the beginning of the 20th century.
From here, we drive 15 minutes, past the village of Aiguamúrcia, to the Monestir de Santes Creus, taking time to have a look at the monastery that was founded in the mid-12th century by Cistercian monks. Expropriated by the state in 1835, it was used as a barracks and prison before eventually being declared a national monument and restored. Don’t miss the wonderful 14th century cloister or, in one of the shops in town, its famous nueles, delicate and crispy, tube-like cookies.
On the way back to Valls, we stop in Vila-Rodona at the celler cooperatiu (wine cooperative), another of Martinell’s fine work that combines attractive curving arcs of bricks with practical design. Here, though, is an excellent agrobotiga that sells more than 400 artisanal food items, from wines and olive oil to local almonds and hazelnuts.
We overnight in Valls at the Fèlix Hotel, a two minute walk from the owner’s other establishment, Casa Fèlix. Along with Masia Bou, it is the best-known spot in the Valls to eat calçots. For dinner, another complete menú calçotada is impossible, but a ración of them to begin dinner… of course!
In the morning, we enjoy a leisurely breakfast of torrades (wide, toasted sliced of country bread) with local extra-virgin olive oil and different cured hams products and cheeses.
After loading up the car, we drive to north on the N-240 to the Monestir de Poblet, the region’s biggest attraction. The austere and majestic Cistercian monastery was founded in 1151 by monks from France. Dedicated to Santa María, the vast, fortified abbey is one of the largest in Spain, and contains a pantheon of the kings of Catalonia and Aragón. It was expropriated by the state in 1835, and fell to ruin, to be, later, restored to its current brilliance. In 1991, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site. We visit the monastery grounds and get a sense of past times and cloistered life, including the ancient cellars where the monks used to make wine.
From Poblet, drive back towards the AP-2, stopping at L’Espluga de Francolí to visit the town’s celler cooperatiu. Designed by Pere Domènech i Roura (1881-1962; son of the legendary Catalonian architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner) and built in 1913, it is one of the earliest, and finest, examples of a modernista bodega. The writer Àngel Guimera (1845-1924), the most important 19th century Catalonian playwright, famously called it “la Catedral del Vi”—the Cathedral of Wine. The façade is brilliant, but so are the internal supports above the vast tanks of wine.
The cooperatiu houses a fascinating Museu del Vi (Museum of Wine), while the well-stocked agrobotiga is a great place to pick up some of the co-op’s wine as well as olive oil. During the olive harvest (roughly December through February), it’s possible to watch foamy green oli flow fresh from the press. This heady, aromatic, fruity, and full-bodied Arbequina variety of oil is sold in 5 liter plastic garrafas.
From here, we take the AP-2 autopista to El Vendrell, just inland from the sea. El Vendrell, Vilafranca del Penedès, Vilanova i la Geltrú, and Sitges are the four tenors of the Ruta del Xató. Be warmed, though, the paternity of this savory, winter salad is hotly disputed and all four lay claim its origen.
While versions in each town vary slightly, xató consists of essentially the same main ingredients. First is the curly endive, which is in peak season from December to March. Next is the romesco sauce. Similar to calçot sauce, very generally speaking, it’s prepared with garlic, roasted nuts, sometimes tomatoes, and olive oil and vinegar. And, finally, three types of salt-cured fish—anchovies, salt cod, and salted tuna—as well as some olives.
In El Vendrell, one of best places to sample a traditional local version is at El Molí de Cal Tof. It’s not the easiest place to find, but, once inside, near the burning fire, a glass of red wine in hand, and a plate of xató on the way, it feels worth the effort. The xató here is tossed in advance so that the flavors can meld. Delicious!
But after that huge breakfast, we are probably not hungry yet, and, feeling like some salty breezes, continue another 15 minutes to the coastal town of Vilanova i la Geltrú. Along the waterfront Passeig Marítim, with its palm trees and century-old white buildings trimmed in blue, we head for the exquisite, light-filled Restaurant Marina (also known as Can Coll).
The xató here is simply marvelous. The sauce is rich and dense and tossed with the endive at the last minute, which means it tastes vigorously fresh. Marina serves two xató menus. The first follows the xató with fideos marineras (fisherman-style noodles cooked in the cazuela) and then calamares rellenos (stuffed calamari), the second with a lovely rodaballo (turbot) dish. Both come with stupendously rich desserts.
After lunch, we stroll the wide beach on the north end of the city by the lighthouse, ogle the greenish-blue Mediterranean, and watch the waves crash along the Garraf coastline. (And, if it’s warmer, we don our trunks and go for a swim.)
From Vilanova i la Geltrú, we follow the coast a short 12 km / 7 miles to Sitges. For xató here, head to La Santa María, a waterfront place whose wide terrace is popular for fideuà and paella.
But we’ve probably already eaten, so instead we check out Museu Cau Ferrat, founded in 1890 as a house-cum-studio of the artist Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931). We then head to the picturesque waterfront walkway, with its dense collection of late 19th century buildings on one side and series of manicured beaches on the other. We buy an ice cream, and stroll, enjoying the fresh breezes and people watching—favorite activities in Sitges.
From here it is an easy thirty minute return to Barcelona, so we take our time and wait until the sun sets and the light fades before heading back.
Jeff Koehler has managed to unite three of his passions: writing, photography and food, above all that of Mediterranean. He has published articles and photographs in Gourmet, Saveur, Food&Wine.