Onions from Spain
Valencia, Spains 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 Spains 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 Spains largest onion warehouse operations, research facilities
and onion exporters. Companies include Requena, Cebollas Tara, Riba-Roja
de Turia and la Pobla de Vallbona. Spains 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 worlds 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 Spains 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 Dalis
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 todays
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
(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 Spains 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. Its no surprise. The onion is fundamental to Spanish cuisine
so its 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
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 mans 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 theyre blackened and
burnt (and tender sweet). Then, after the outer skin is removed, theyre
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 ones 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 theyre, 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
Visitors who cant get to Valls will find a number of regional restaurants
offering calcot menus during the winter months. At the LHostalet
Inn and restaurant, with 72-hour notice, theyll offer a calcotada,
and if thats insuffi cient, its 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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