Sardanes are uniquely Catalan dances performed in a circle to an intricate foot routine. The music is played by a cobla, a none-too-refined but gutsy oom-pah-pah Catalan band which includes a unique, wobbly sounding double-reed instrument called the tenor.
Slim, dark-haired and probably well into her 50s, the lady who so bewitched me from afar was wearing a snow-white, frilly peasant blouse and matching floaty skirt, cinched in and trimmed with broderie anglaise.
Nowadays they are big business and cultivation is subject to stipulations as stringent as those for French wine production.In readiness for dancing she had also donned her vigatanes - special Catalan sandals strapped elegantly above her shapely ankles.
Amazingly she was just as spotless when the blackened onions had all been eaten, and she floated around the floor once again to the tango and paso doble during the thé danse.
There wasn't a speck of ash on her anywhere, whereas the novices among us were filthy - hands, faces and beards daubed greasy black, ravaged by burned onion skins as we queued to wash at the solitary cold water sink.
Some had also made a disgusting mess of shirts and tops - in spite of the pretty bibs we had been given printed in Catalan and French: "Vernet dels Banys - Vernet les Bains".
Vernet is the picturesque spa town, favoured by the English since the era of Rudyard Kipling, at the foothills of Mount Canigou on the French/Spanish border.
Calçots: truly special onions
We had come for La Calçotada, a festival of onions held in late March. Not just any old onions but truly special scallions or spring onions looking as though they have been "grown on steroids and viagra".
The Catalan word for them is calçots, with the 't' pronounced, and they are grown in the Valls region of Southern Catalonia, west of Tarragona.
Fortunately for those of us on the French side, some of the 20 million calçots produced each year find their way over the border to Calçotadas at Cerbère, Vernet les Bains and Toulouges.
On the face of it the idea is barmy - hundreds of gourmets assembling to eat this delicacy and get themselves mucky. But if you enjoy exquisitely tender, grilled spring onions grown in a unique way and dipped in an unforgettable fiery sauce ("salvitxada" or "romesco") this is the experience of a lifetime.
To find the venue in Vernet - the Salle Polyvalente - we followed our noses on a cool, crisp and windless early spring day last year.
Our olfactory senses were drawn irresistibly by the siren scents of wood smoke and the delicate fragrance of calçots blackening on large grills over well-stoked fires. So what exactly are calçots?
Cultivation takes up to 14 months. The seeds are sown in late autumn to early winter (under a waning moon, of course!) and planted out from January through March.The first farming of them was reportedly the brainwave (or possibly accidental discovery) of a peasant farmer from Valls named Xat de Benaiges in the 1890s.
Nowadays they are big business and cultivation is subject to stipulations as stringent as those for French wine production.
A calçot must be between 16 and 25 centimetres long, with a diameter from 1.6 to 25 centimetres. It looks like something between a leek and a spring onion: "a strange looking creature, which when sufficiently cooked easily sheds its skin to reveal a shining white bulb of the most delicate flavour."
If only it were that easy.
Cultivation takes up to 14 months. The seeds are sown in late autumn to early winter (under a waning moon, of course!) and planted out from January through March.
In July and August the onions are lifted, divided and laid out to dry before being replanted (August to Sept) with seven or eight sprouting shoots, the bulbs being exposed. They are then periodically earthed up, and harvested from November to the following spring.
Back to the feast: after the sardanes, aperitifs and starter of good liver pâté, the calçots finally appeared to roars of approval. (Some of us were, after all, already well oiled by the robust red wine.) They were carried to the long tables by a cheerful army of bénévoles or volunteers.
Wrapped in newspaper to keep them warm (just like the British fish and chips of old) they were served in bundles of twelve. Bowls of spicy sauce were already on the table: a heavenly concoction of onions, tomatoes, red peppers, pimentos, garlic, ground almonds, oil, vinegar and salt!
We unwrapped the newspapers and let battle commence. Instructions I found on the internet (at 'Sal de Traglia's Virtual Tapas Bar') sound so simple: With one hand, grab the calçot's burnt exterior at the bottom. With the other hand, grab a couple of the green stalks at the top: but only the stalks in the centre; not on the perimeter.
Then like a samurai unsheathing his sword, give it a tug! The calçot's tender white core will pull out of its charred, fibrous exterior.
Dip the calçot's core in the sauce, tilt your head back, dangle it above your gaping mouth, drop it in and bite.
Then remove your shirt and send it to the dry cleaner - unless, that is, you heeded earlier advice about wearing a bib.
Bib or no bib, if you're like me you get dirty, as my bib wasn't big enough to reach even the ledge of my stomach.
The fun was greatly boosted by our friendly Catalan fellow revellers. A jovial wag sitting next to my wife Clare hit on a mischievous way of getting second helpings.
There was a single empty seat opposite us. So every time food was served he pointed to the empty seat and said "Madame là est à la toilette."
So the spectral 'Madame' was served in absentia and we had extra calçots and everything else.
With the calçots consumed a grillade followed, done on the glowing embers. It included three classic ingredients: Catalan sausages, belly pork slices, and black puddings (botifarras).
During the ensuing thé danse featuring my spotless dream lady in white, we made our way through some decent camembert and then portions of fougasse (a kind of flat sweet bread) and coffee.
Booking for this year's festival, on March 30, is now open. For more information call the Vernet Office du Tourisme on Int 44 33 (0) 468055535 or log on to www.ot-vernet-les-bains.fr
About the Author
Basil Howitt was a professional cellist before he turned to full-time writing in the late 1990s. He has written five books, three of them on the love lives of the great composers. He now lives permanently, and in blissful happiness, in Lansac in the French Pyrenees.
Quote this article on your site
To show this article on your website,
copy and paste the text below into your page.
She stood out a mile in the packed hall at Vernet les Bains as she approached the dancing area for the sardanes, highlight of the festival. The aperitifs (bottles of sweet,...