The Great Calçot Experiment
Gardening is a great way to sharpen your skills of observation, deduction and experimentation. No less than Charles Darwin started his day with a slow tour of his garden in Kent via a path called Sand-Walk. His route often paused at his pea patch where he conducted his own studies of pea genetics that often ended with peas on the dinner plate. Darwin nicknamed Sand-Walk his "Thinking Path."
I am hardly anyone's Darwin but I have been drawn into some experiments of my own with onions. They began last fall when I encountered an interesting story about a type of onion called "calçot" (pronounced "cal-so") that is grown in Spain's Catalan region. The word calçot is Catalan and is generally translated as "sock" but I've also seen it meant as "cover."
Calçots are type of "spring onion" that has been grown for centuries in Catalan. With improbable precision the history of their cultivation is traced to a single farmer, Xat de Benaiges, who in the late 1800s decided to plant sprouting onion bulbs back into the soil and manage them in an unusual way.
By nature onions are biannual plants. In other words they require two seasons (years) to make a full revolution of their life cycle of seed-to-seed production. If one sows onion seeds in the spring the resulting plant will grow or "set" a bulb when the hours of daylight matches a genetically set requirement for that strain of onion. The bulb grows in size until the plant's life cycles runs its course and dies. We harvest onion bulbs and promptly consume them but an uneaten onion bulb's destiny is to finish its life cycle next season.
After a period of dormancy onion bulbs will, if not poisoned with chemical inhibitors, sprout anew. Typically they send up several shoots each with independent root systems reflecting the fact that bulbs are made up of several "rings" which are specialized leaves each with a germinal center. These new plants won't set bulbs but they will soon flower and set seeds for future planting.
The innovation that the Catalan farmer discovered 200 years ago was a simple technique of farming sprouted onion bulbs in a manner that elongated their white shoots. The next step was to harvest them very early before flowering and at a point when the onions remain tender and full of sweet flavor.
The farming practice of growing calçots co-evolved with culinary practices and social customs of the region. Calçot are harvested late February through early April. They are prepared in a rustic manner by grilling them over dried grape vines. The fire leaves the outer skins blackened and they finish cooking by wrapping them in paper for a brief rest. The finishing touches in eating calçots are to strip off the outer charred leaves (taking off the 'sock') to reveal the sweet white inner stalk. Calçot are typically eaten with a dipping sauce made from garlic, tomatoes and ground almonds. Of course this sort of food calls for medicinal quantities of red wine, which prompts an appetite for another round of calçots.
The accompanying photographs document my Grand Calcot Experiment. I started with a special sweet white onion that I had grown in 2006. I stored them in my usual careful way, which is in a box under a walnut tree. As fall drew to a close many of the uneaten bulbs had sprouted. I planted the bulbs in "calcot fashion" in a trench, adding more soil as the sprouts lengthened. In short I "hilled" them as one does with potatoes.
The pictures show how the calçots shot up multiple shoots, each forming a large stout stalk at harvest. The final photos show the grilling with grape vines and the "de-socked" onion. Calcots taste sweet with a mild, very fresh onion flavor. On a scale of 1-10 I would modestly place them at 15 and give them an Onion Oscar. They are quite nice indeed.
Despite the raves at the table and tricky farming though I rank the Great Calçot Experiment as a mixed success. Darwin looked at his peas and ate them but then went on to write a few books that changed the world. I looked at my calçots crop and ate them too but I'm writing this bog. Need I say more?
Maybe I'll try peas next.