The crispiness of a slice of sweet new spring onion perched on a crunchy saltine cracker is not only an addictive snacking combination. Some even maintain that the daily consumption of this humble vegetable is the key to a life of good health.
You may know that Georgia has its Vidalia, Texas has its Texas Sweet, Washington has its Walla Walla, and they all have their festivals. But there’s more. From Italy to Germany to Switzerland to the UK and beyond, the humble onion inspires countless celebrations.
And that brings me to the ramp and the calcot (pronounced cal sote), two members of the onion family whose spring arrival is celebrated almost simultaneously. Polk County, Tennessee is the home of the Annual Ramp Tramp Festival (one of many ramp festivals throughout the US) and Valls, Tarragona, located on the outskirts of Barcelona, Spain, is the home of Calcotada.
In the Catalan region of Spain that includes Barcelona, the calcot eating begins in January and runs through April. The calcot’s mild sweet flavor is attributed to a cultivation method that involves piling soil around the plant to protect and lengthen the white part of the onion.
Throughout Catalonia the spring arrival of the little onion is observed with cooking demonstrations, parades, eating competitions and Calcotada, the harvest festival.
Calcots require little to no cleaning prior to cooking and are typically grilled over open flames until blackened, then wrapped in newspaper, and served on terra cotta tiles to keep them warm. The traditionalist will eat each calcot by first dipping the white part in Romesco sauce before tipping back his head and guiding the entire calcot into his mouth. It’s a messy business but a true Catalonian delicacy.
While Catalonians are harvesting, grilling and eating their little onions, ramp festivals are sprouting up just about anywhere ramps can be found. They grow wild in mountainous regions from North and South Carolina through Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, New York and Canada. Polk County, Tennessee located about two hours south of Knoxville or an hour east of Chattanooga, is the home of one such festival: the Ramp Tramp Festival has been held annually since 1958.
During the first days of the festival, ramp lovers armed with digging equipment will tramp up mountains through forests and hollers in search of a fine stand of ramps. They must be harvested carefully leaving behind undamaged plants for regrowth.
To the tune of bluegrass and gospel music, cooks carefully clean the dirty ramps and prepare the ultimate festival meal of white beans cooked with streaked meat (fat back), garnished with sliced raw ramps, and served with cornbread. The ramps, whose flavor has been described as a combination of leek and garlic, can be scrambled with eggs, fried with potatoes, wilted in bacon fat or roasted and grilled whole.
This time of year, look for ramps in farm markets in regions where ramps grow wild. But you had better act fast. By the end of April, ramp and calcot lovers alike will have to be content waiting for next year.
Copyright Susan Motley 2017