IberiaNature A guide to the natural history and food of Spain

Garlic, leeks and onions in Catalonia and Spain

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Muslim legend has it that when Satan left the Garden of Eden garlic sprang up from his left footstep and onion from his right. Cultivated since pre-historic times in central Asia, garlic, leeks, onions and shallots are all classified as allium,, of which t here are over 500 types, some edible, some strictly ornamental; their common link is the sulphur compounds that give them their distinctive taste, smell and anti-social reputation.

" Eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath ." In Ireland I used to worry about "onion and garlic breath", and experimented with various ways of combating it, such as eating one or two sprigs of parsley, or an apple, or rinsing the mouth with a mixture of lemon juice and water, or chewing the peel of an orange or lemon, or coffee beans, a vanilla bean or fennel seed. I learnt that all these methods are doomed to failure, and not even breath freshener or mints will do more than make others wonder if you are a secret drinker. Apparently, whenever we taste so much as a little bit of garlic or onion, the essential oils are absorbed by our lung tissue. The first time I walked into a Spanish classroom full of children who were just after having lunch at home was a severe shock in this regard. I no longer have a big problem with the phenomenon, and it would seem that if everyone eats garlic, nobody is bothered by anyone else's garlic breath.

" If Leekes you like, but do their smell dis-like, Eat Onyons, and you shall not smell the Leeke; If you of Onyons would the scent expell, Eat Garlicke, that shall drowne the Onyons' smell ." (Dr. William Kitchiner, The Cook's Oracle)

This principle may not apply in crowded lifts, but for most purposes works admirably.

The sulphur compounds are most concentrated in garlic, giving it its strong flavour and odour and making it medically potent. They exist in rather lower concentrations in most other members of the genus, and can actually be harmful to the health in large concentrations. It would take an awful lot of garlic or onions to cause problems for most people, though cases are occasionally recorded. Most mammals can be affected by them and, for some reason, dogs seem to be more susceptible than most.

Garlic / Alls / Ajos

In Catalunya, heads of garlic are sold in braided strings or net bags hung decoratively around market stalls, which usually also sell onions. The first time I went to the market in Figueres, I asked for a single head of garlic, causing great amusement to all present.

Uncountable in English, countable in Spanish and Catalan, garlic seems to feature in the majority of household dishes in this country. I have seen people, while trying to decide what to have for lunch or dinner, peel and chop a couple of dientes ["teeth", i.e. cloves] of garlic and throw it into hot oil, even before they've made any decision!

There are several varieties of garlic grown in Spain . Some are white, with lots of small white inaccessible dientes , while others have a purple tinge, and tend to be easier to peel. Some are strong, some are mild, some are almost sweet, and some have a lingering flavour, or just repeat ferociously! All of them stink to a greater or lesser degree. Purple garlic from Las Pedroneras, in the province of Cuenca , is generally considered to be the best of all. 80% of this particular variety is exported to meet the demands of gourmets throughout the world. It has a light wheat colour, a fine texture, and a "pungent" aroma.

Garlic is eaten both raw and cooked. It is common to find several whole or half cloves in salads, stews and baked dishes. It seems to have become fashionable in posh joints not to peel them. Most people chop them coarsely for frying, and I can't recall ever seeing mashed garlic or garlic paste in this country. I've seen dried garlic flakes, garlic powder, garlic salt and garlic oil on supermarket shelves, but I would be surprised to find them in any decent Spanish kitchen.

Ajo y perejil / all i julivert /garlic & parsley is a mixture routinely sprinkled with a little oil on chicken, fish and mushrooms for cooking, and is absolutely heavenly when not too heavily applied. Almost anything cooked al ajillo is divine, especially prawns { gambas ].

Tender or green garlic is harvested in spring in the form of alls tendres /ajos tiernos . These look like green or spring onions or scallions and are very mild. They frequently appear in salads and by themselves or with other ingredients, especially prawns, in omelettes.

When planted in winter, garlic cloves sprout chive-like shoots, called / brotes de ajo , which can be used as a seasoning or garnish. These greens yield a flavour that is gentler and subtler than chopped garlic, but stronger than chives. They are easily cultivated at home in a saucer.

Garlic has always been a traditional remedy for and protection against a variety of ills, and modern medicine has proved the old wives right. Garlic is not only a digestive stimulant, but is also of use in the treatment of a wide range of diseases, particularly ailments such as ringworm, candida and vaginitis, where its fungicidal, parasiticidal, antiseptic and tonic properties have proved of benefit. It also has diuretic and antispasmodic effects. It helps to prevent plaque build-up in arteries, and is thus beneficial to heart health. Demographic studies suggest that garlic is responsible for the low incidence of arteriosclerosis in areas of Italy and Spain where consumption of the bulb is heavy. Additionally, many studies have been done to show the value of garlic when used to prevent certain forms of cancer. There is strong evidence that healthful benefits derive only from the natural product, not pills or extracts.

Folklore also attributes other powers to garlic. Vampires have never been a major issue in Catalunya (although it was a Catalan who pointed out to me that vampirism was clearly a case of advanced rabies or hydrophobia), but cloves were often sewn into the linings of skirts and jackets to ward off the evil eye.

Chives ( Allium schoenoprasum ), grow in clumps like grass, sending up graceful, hollow, thin leaves up to 12 inches and lovely lavender flowers, without any underground bulb. Thus, it is the leaves that are the source of the onion flavour. The flowers are also edible.

Garlic chives ( Allium tuberosum ), aka Chinese chives, are distinguishable from chives by their flat, broader leaves and fragrant white flowers, otherwise, they look very similar in appearance. Garlic chives have a delicate garlic flavour and are used extensively in oriental dishes.  

Leeks / Porros / Puerros

According to Wikepedia, the leek ( Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum ) is a relative of elephant garlic ( Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum ) grown for its bulbs, and kurrat which is grown for its leaves in the Middle East . Rather than forming a tight bulb, the leek produces a long cylinder of bundled leaf sheaths, generally blanched by pushing soil around them (trenching). Leek cultivars can be subdivided in several ways, but the most common types are "summer leeks", intended for harvest in the season when planted, and overwintering leeks, meant to be harvested the following spring. Summer leek types are generally smaller and less strongly flavoured than overwintering types. Leeks were prized by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, who distributed the vegetable across Europe . The Leek was the favourite vegetable of the Emperor Nero, who consumed it most often in soup form.

Leeks are an essential ingredient of cock-a-leekie soup and of vichyssoise. They can also be used raw in salads, doing especially well when they are the prime ingredient.

The leek and the daffodil are national emblems of Wales, and Welsh people wear leeks on St. David's Day in the same way as Irish people wear shamrock on St. Patrick's DayAccording to legend, King Cadwallader ordered his Welsh soldiers to identify themselves by wearing the vegetable on their helmets in an ancient battle against the Saxons that took place in a leek field. It is known that the leek has been a symbol of Wales for a long time; Shakespeare refers to the custom of wearing a leek as an "ancient tradition" in Henry V. In the play, Henry tells Fluellen he is wearing a leek "for I am Welsh, you know, good countryman". The 1985 and 1990 British One Pound coins bear the design of a leek in a coronet, representing Wales . .I was once attacked in Dublin by Welsh rugby supporters dressed as giant leeks, who carried me quaking into the nearest pub and forced me to consume vast quantities of Guinness.

"Leek" can be used as a last name, particularly in the United Kingdom , though it is rather uncommon


Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Onions were well known to the ancient Egyptians, who believed that the onion's spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternity. Of all the vegetables that had their images created from precious metals by Egyptian artists, only the onion was made out of gold. The first recorded strike in history took place during the construction of the pyramid of Khufu, when, according to the ever-reliable Herodotus, the workers staged a protest because they weren't getting their onions. The popularity of the onion eventually carried it into ancient Greece where athletes consumed large quantities because it would "lighten the balance of the blood". The onion was a staple in the Roman diet, and gladiators were rubbed down with onion juice to "firm up the muscles". Modern Indian politicians go to great lengths to keep onions cheap, even importing them from Pakistan , as the price of such a fundamental ingredient in all of the subcontinent's many cuisines can bring down governments.

" There are two types of onion ...the Spanish has more food value and is therefore chosen to make soup for huntsmen and drunkards, two classes of people who require fast recuperation ", wrote Alexandre Dumas pére .

Nowadays there are many varieties of onion, but classification seems equally arbitrary. Should onions be grouped by colour (Yellow, Red, White, Green, Purple), by shape (Round, Oval, Slender, torpedo-shaped) or by personality traits (Sweet, Assertive, Tear-jerker)? According to one leading authority, onions are categorized as being either green or dry onions. Green onions are small onions that are harvested before the bulb has matured and the tops are still green. Dry onions, also known as mature onions, are harvested when their shoot has died and layers of papery thin skin cover a firm juicy flesh. There are two types of dry onions, fresh (spring/summer) onions, also referred to as sweet onions, and storage (autumn/winter) onions. There are a wide variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from small round pearl onions to the larger spherical-shaped Spanish onions. Sweet onions have higher water content and are best served raw. Storage onions contain high sulphur content and less moisture, so they can be kept in storage for longer periods of time. Storage onions have a sharper taste than sweet onions.

Even though the terms green onions and scallions are used interchangeably, they are actually two different onions. Green onions can actually be any variety of onion, whereas scallions are actually a specific variety. The bulb end of the scallion has straight sides and does not form a rounded bulb as other green onions may form. Scallions will generally have a milder flavour also.

When Irish people talk about Spanish onions, they are usually referring to the large purplish variety that comes [to Barcelona , at least] from Figueres. I think these may be Cippoline or Borettana onions. A Spanish onion is in fact a large round dry onion that has a light golden caramel coloured skin. It is the largest, most popular onion for slicing and eating raw because of its mild sweet taste. Spanish onions make good onion rings.

Onions are exceptionally versatile. They can be eaten raw, whole, halved, quartered, segmented, cut into rings, chopped coarsely or finely, diced, minced, pulverised, powdered, pickled, boiled, fried, deep fried, sautéed, sweated, caramelised, battered, breadcrumbed, baked, roasted, barbecued and grilled or cooked a la plancha , alone or together with other foods, and are delicious in salads, soups, stews, curries, casseroles and pies.

Irritation to the eyes, which provokes tears, can be a problem when cutting onions. Weeping is caused by the sulphuric compounds contained in the onion, which are released when the onion is cut. The higher the level of sulphur content in an onion the more of a problem tearing will be. Different varieties of onion are more of a problem than others. Dry storage onions have the highest level of sulphur, which makes them cause more of a tearing problem when slicing and chopping. Some suggested solutions to the problem are: to chill the onions for at least 30 minutes before cutting; to peel the onions, cut them in half and let them soak in water for approximately 10 minutes before cutting; to slice them under cold running water; to use a very sharp knife in order to expose less of the sulphur compounds to the air; to brush the cutting board with vinegar before slicing and chopping; to leave the root ends on as long as possible, because that is where the sulphur is most heavily concentrated; to light one or two candles in the area you are cutting the onions; to have a fan blowing the fumes away; to keep the mouth closed or even hold the breath while cutting the onions; or to wear goggles.

The juice of the common onion is used as a moth repellent. It can also be used as a rust preventative on metals and as a polish for copper and glass. Mixed with sugar, it is said to be a potent cure-all, and is applied both internally and externally.


Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Shallots are the smallest species of the onion family , often mistakenly thought to be another variety of onion. They are pear-shaped bulbs that grow in clusters similar to garlic, except they do not have an outer layer of skin holding the bulbs together, but are attached at the base and by loose skins. Shallots have a tapered shape, and their fine-textured skin can range from rose to light grey to light brown or copper, while their cream-coloured flesh tends to be lightly tinged with purple or green. Shallots were first introduced to Europe during the 12 th century by Crusaders bringing them home from the ancient Palestinian city of Ascalon .

Shallots have a mild taste that is a cross between a sweet onion and garlic and are used to flavour meats, stews and soups. Shallots should not be browned because this causes them to become bitter. When used raw for salads and vinaigrettes, they provide a subtle yet distinct flavour not equalled by other onions. Grating a shallot instead of mincing or finely dicing, allows a greater amount of the essence to be released into the food while requiring only half of the amount of minced shallot required for a recipe. I like finding whole shallots in stews. Shallots are available throughout the year.  


Calçots are a Catalan speciality. The Calçot from Valls in Tarragona enjoys registered EU Protected Geographical Indication, no less. A calçot is actually a variety of giant scallion known as Blanca Grande Tardana from Lleida, grown covered in earth so that the edible part remained white and the vulva does not develop. The action of covering the scallions is known in Catalan as " calçar " (to wear or dress), hence the name " calçot ". It is commonly accepted that they were first cultivated in this way at the end of the 19 th century by Xat de Benaiges, a farmer who lived near Valls.

The traditional way of eating calçots is at a calçotada , a popular feast held between the end of winter and March or April. The calçots are cooked on roof tiles over a charcoal vine barbecue, and are cooked when they start to ooze a milky sweat. Hunks of meat, lamb and pork chops, botifarras and other embutidos such as chorizo are roasted after the calçots have been removed from the embers. The calçots are then very messily peeled, burning fingers; the charred outer leaves make everybody's hands filthy and are discarded in piles on the table or ground, while the long slim white firm fleshy phallic vegetables are dipped by increasingly frenzied revellers in a delicious variety of gooey glutinous orange romesco-style tangy pepper, almond and hazelnut sauce to then be lowered dripping into the mouth in a manner reminiscent of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at its most decadent and depraved. The action of engulfing a crunchy calçot is undeniably sensuous, and with the accompaniment of gallons of red wine and cava drunk from porrons , these occasions tend to degenerate rapidly into unseemly Dionysian orgies. Participants wear bibs over their oldest clothes, and soon find themselves farting a lot, which is why calçotades are usually held outdoors, in olive groves, hidden from the eyes of puritanical onlookers. Catalans at a calçotada indulge their famed rauxa , an infectious form of collective madness and hilarity. By the time the cooked meats have been consumed, followed by coca, carajillos and licores , the sated feasters are purring like pussycats. Great fun and highly recommended.

See also

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.

Expert guided food tours in Barcelona by Nick Lloyd of Iberianature.



Francis Barrett's Deconstruction of Catalan and Spanish Food

See aslo a brief guide to Catalan food by Simon Rice



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