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Onions from Spain

Onion World
March 2007

Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, is blessed with a benign climate, abundant, dazzling sunlight and surrounded by hortas, extremely fertile, intensively developed and irrigated small market gardens, providing much of Europe with seasonal produce. Singularly associated with citrus fruits, oranges in particular, this Mediterranean port city also happens to be the historic and modern epicenter of Spain’s onion industry. Valencia provence itself has 5,930 hectares (about 14,653 acres) under cultivation producing 214,500 metric tons.

Valencia and its surrounding region is home not only to onion farmers but to Spain’s largest onion warehouse operations, research facilities and onion exporters. Companies include Requena, Cebollas Tara, Riba-Roja de Turia and la Pobla de Vallbona. Spain’s 30-year-old onion trade association ACEC ( Asociacion Espanola de Cosecheros-Exportadores de Cebollas) is based in Valencia as well. Although Spain produces a bare 2 percent of the world’s onions, in Western Europe Spain is king, the key player on the continent, growing one million metric tons annually, generating $192 million (FAOSTAT fi gures for 2005). Almost the entire Spanish crop is sold fresh; only 3 percent is for industrial usage.

Onion fields are found throughout the country, from the arid south to the lush green and mountainous northwest, to the high plains of the interior. The harvest begins in Andalucia in February and ends in the coolest areas in late October. To understand the roots of Spain’s onion industry it helps to have a detailed map of the country, where even the smallest villages are indexed. Why? Quite simply because so many of the onions, well known and otherwise, first originated in such places. The Recas? A small Grano-type onion was produced from a hamlet of that name located near Toledo; the reddish brown late Liebana from the magnifi cent Picos de Europa region is named after a beautiful valley there; similarly the sweet and spicy Liria is named after the town where fields of the onion variety were fi rst exploited; the pink Colorade de Figueras developed from the artist Salvadore Dali’s
hometown. And so it goes.

Spanish onions are not exported to the U.S. today but there is one strong historical connection to the American onion market. The parent of today’s sweet onions such as Vidalia and Granex came to U.S. shores 82 years ago when Valencia Grano 9452, as it was then named, was imported to Texas. Grano remains the most extensively planted onion in Spain with 14,224 hectares (34,280 acres) under cultivation.

According to the ACEC, some new up and coming varieties include CLX 1850, Super Glaxia, Romagui and Len. For the internal market, Spanish onion growers grade onions by a system where the higher the number, the smaller the size of the onion (e.g. no. 2 is 100-115 mm in diameter; no. 7 from 30-45 mm). For export, Spanish producers can and do use the “European” system which is more direct, i.e. onions are graded and named simply by their size
(e.g. 40-60 mm; 70-90 mm).

The United Kingdom, followed by Germany, Belgium and France, are the biggest importers of Spanish onions. Only one third of Spain’s onions ever leave the country itself, with the rest consumed by its own citizens. The Spanish like their onions so much, in fact, that they have the highest per capita consumption in Europe, around 16 pounds. They find it necessary to import, primarily from France, the Netherlands and Germany, in that order. It’s no surprise. The onion is fundamental to Spanish cuisine so it’s hard to think of what it would look like if onions were deleted. The foundation sauce for Spanish cooking, the sofrito, consists of the trinity: onion, pepper and
tomato. Other ingredients can be added but no sofrito can be made without those three ingredients; certainly none without onions. But the sofrito is just the beginning. Onions are stuffed, boiled, baked and used, of course, as complementary ingredients in hundreds of Spanish recipes.

Nowhere is the Spaniards’ great affection for onions more touted in the governmental tourist literature, an arm of the Ministry of the Economy. And a decade ago the Catalonian government ruled that the calcot from Valls become a protected brand. Production was limited to a particular geographical area, and the rules required that Calcot de Valls must come exclusively from the bulbs of the Late White Lleida onion and must adhere to certain
objective and subjective criteria, including, for example, the minimum and maximum than during the winter festival known as the calcotada, celebrated primarily in Tarragona provence, north of Valencia. Calcots, what the
French call “the poor man’s asparagus,” are a long-stemmed, large white onion.

Planted in late autumn or early winter, the onions are taken from the ground a few months later. Stored in a dry area for a few months, they are replanted in August and September in trenches. As the days shorten, the onion shoots are lined with soil, giving them a blanched appearance. From the end of January to early spring, the calcots are harvested. Then, the Spanish do what they do so well – they party.

With the humblest of ingredients they make an elaborate and ritualized celebration. The calcots are grilled until they’re blackened and burnt (and tender sweet). Then, after the outer skin is removed, they’re served with a variety of spicy sauces, whose ingredients are closely held secrets. As Coleman Andrews sybaritically enthuses in his book, Catalan Cuisine, “the glistening white end of the calcot is...lowered into the mouth with one’s head thrown back jauntily and bitten off about where the green part starts. As might be imagined eating the calcots is messy work and everyone wears bibs and retires frequently to a nearby sink to rinse off the soot.”

It may be messy but it is very, very popular. In the town of Valls (population 20,000), the annual calcotada, held in late January, attracts 30,000 visitors who enjoy a slew of activities including a market, contests, dances, etc. But they’re, fi rst and foremost, in Valls to eat the calcots, which they do. More than 100,000 calcots are consumed during the Valls calcotada alone. The whole calcotada phenomenon has become so popular, in fact, that the Valls festival and others like it are length and diameter of each calcot.

Visitors who can’t get to Valls will find a number of regional restaurants offering calcot menus during the winter months. At the L’Hostalet Inn and restaurant, with 72-hour notice, they’ll offer a calcotada, and if that’s insuffi cient, it’s possible to partake of a “Calcotada package” for 109 Euros (or around $133) per person. As the local saying goes, “ The calcot is much more than an onion.”

© 2007 Columbia Publishing

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