June 2020. Know Your Onions

JUNE BLOG: Know Your Onions

Just recently there seems to have been another Italian Renaissance, this time in the life of one of the ubiquitous Allium family. Perhaps you might find this somewhat surprising as most are cultivated and used liberally, if not lavishly, worldwide, especially the most famous of the species, the Onion, for which I have more than a particular fancy. You might say a matter that is somewhat historical.

In my youth, long before “Onion”  became a nickname for marijuana among the airheads, it became almost a passion that was catered for discreet aficionados like myself in a famous local Salisbury hostelry, the Haunch and Venison, where it took the form of a hefty ‘Cheese and Onion’ sandwich to go along with a thirst quenching glass of Newcastle Brown ale. They also provided an up market version for those with deeper pockets consisting of ‘Roast beef and Horseradish sauce’, along with their pint of Guinness. I don’t suppose they do anymore, having changed brewers twice in my time. The last I heard it was a Watney’s pub, but enough on that hardly related matter.

It has to be said that the malodorous exhalation from the subject of this story by veteran munchers was, at the time, considered a characteristic of the plebs, despite the onion being the noblest of this particular vegetable category. Amongst the bourgeoisie it was therefore considered only fit for a hoi polloi lunch time sarnie. But then, during this particular period hardly anyone seemed to be aware of Allium Sativum – or Aspargales for short, and no relation to an unknown Welsh variety of a quite different genus. The odoriferous, and now indispensable Garlic, had yet to make a truly national appearance, despite being a culinary item for as long as history itself when it was known as Garlete which is a mumbled version of gar: spear and lete: leek; a supposed description of the plant. At which point the uninitiated, and genteel innocent, turned a ‘Whiter shade of Pale’ at the first whiff, just then heading for the top of the pops! Now, in more cosmopolitan times, it hasn’t stopped me from being partial to a slice of toast rubbed liberally with garlic and drenched in olive oil with a tweak of salt: the famous Italian “Fettunta” or in trendy Florence, Fett’Unta. But onions are what we are about, and I fancy once again we digress.

For most of us Onions generally appear in three colours like some sort of star-spangled banner: red, brown and white, though tints from green to purple might throw you off the scent. (I take that back. How could you not know an onion by its distinctive smell!) Sadly, none of them, in a domestic vegetable drawer, seem to keep very well. They seem to have a penchant for germinating in the snug darkness, though at least you can remove the core to good effect. In their favour, at extremes, the rotten ones don’t whiff as much as the malodorous potato! As far as I remember in the UK brown, or ‘Spanish’ onion, appeared the most common variety, and to the connoisseur only fit for pottage. Historically, in England, where nothing used to go to waste, the brown or golden skin was always included in the pot, apparently adding considerable flavour. On the other hand, those who are particularly fond of pickled onions, can find in Italy small onions in season suitable for the purpose, though whether they are rogue ShalIots I have not been able to establish. I shall have to dig deeper. In the UK such onions were often used for flavouring, but I remember them as being more readily companions to that nice wedge of Cheddar cheese. I am not sure if these are the same species also known as Rock onions, which are apparently bulb less, and cultivated for their leaf tops as well as bulbs in the manner of Welsh onions. So doubtful. Anyway, what I believed to be Welsh onions arrived with us in Italy along with Grandmother’s one-hundred-year-old Aspidistra and a twelve-inch-high, apparently sterile, Fig plant. I kid you not. Talk about coals to Newcastle. The onions, once they had settled in, were productive for a decade before giving up the ghost, while the aspidistra prospered mightily, and the fig tree grew enormous, oddly producing figs of two different varieties, one early, months before anyone else, and the other harvested in late August, early September. It is a local anomaly known as the “English Fig”. The Welsh onions were replaced by Chives which have too delicate a flavour for me, but show promise!

Italy, needless to say, given its passionately local bucolic cuisine, has provincial celebrity onions peculiar to the region in virtually every corner of the peninsula, but as far as I know, Tuscany is the only one that has two. Wouldn’t they just. That they have the same nomenclature is misleading enough, but to make matters worse, one of the two turns out to be three with a quite different name! To escape this conundrum, and to put matters straight, Florence has only one local variety while Certaldo flaunts two, one with the same name as the Florentine variety. They are not in any way similar, all three being quite different in taste. Something to do with the soil I’m told.  Dr. Onions, author of the famous “An Advanced English Syntax”, would make a better job of explaining this matter, I’m sure.

One of the nice things about Italy, though many find it annoying, is they are fanatically orientated towards their own region and though no doubt Florence and Certaldo might boast about their own onion, they can always rely on the backing of the local Coop to bang the drum for them at the appropriate time, and just about this moment they are lauding the virtues of these specialist varieties. Their virtual moment in the sun! But there is nothing chauvinist about the Coop’s enthusiasm, and by far the most eulogistic approval centres fairly on a variety farmed in the Calabrian provinces of Cosenza and Vibo Valentia named Tropea. It’s an extremely famous onion with a very long history. The elder Pliny, he who was lost in the catastrophe of Pompei, in his famous “Naturalis Historia” mentions thirty ailments that can be treated with the Tropea onion. Modern science has confirmed the efficacy of its antiseptic properties. You may be able to acquire the variety at specialist greengrocers in the UK. If you can, you’ll never look back. Believe me, salads will never be the same again. A deep purple colour, fading into white as you cut into them, look for the elongated variety which is sweeter than the round or oval-shaped examples of Tropea, and comes with long straight leaves. The latter you must not dispose of, as cleaned and selected, they provide fuel for a very English recipe that originally used Tansy which has aromatic leaves and was treated in the same way.

Waste not Want not: Based on an old farm recipe: Clean the leaves well, then chop them up finely. In a little olive oil and prosciutto fat fry them until soft then drain off the oil and pour over beaten eggs to cover. Pepper and salt, then blend before letting them set on a fairly low heat.

However, I must be just a mite prejudiced and turn back to our two / three Tuscan contestants, that are really very good in their own right. You cannot fail to distinguish the Florentine bright red onion known as Vernina with its unusual flat spinning top shape, though occasionally you can find a quite different milder white onion in the same form that comes from Bassano in the Veneto. The Florentine Vernina is reputed to have a much stronger flavour and fragrance than that from Certaldo. The soil in the area of Florence is mainly alluvial being clay and sand, while the terrain of Certaldo is high in Brimstone, (Sulphur). No doubt this must have some effect on their taste. Not forgetting those from Certaldo we find they must have caused many a local argument as the fourteenth century poet, Giovanni Boccaccio of “The Decameron” fame, and a citizen of that place, declared the Certaldo onion the most famous in Tuscany. Besides the natural partisan bias, he seems to have failed to identify which of the two he was referring to – the Statina, a voluptuously rounded purple hued variety, or the Vernina, a rotund, orb shaped crimson onion, with a very pronounced pungent taste. No matter. They are both excellent.

Gastranomes will be as enthusiastic as the glutton Apicius who had a passion for onion sauces, some which are still popular today. That for fish, especially Tuna and Sardine, is worth a punt:

Combine 1 saucer of grated cheese, pinch of salt, 3 tablespoons of Olive Oil, 1 teaspoon of coriander, 1 tablespoon of honey. Chill before serving on thin slices of toast.

Apparently in Calabria they even make a form of preserve, or ‘marmalade’, of onions and peppers to accompany roasts.

I’ll leave you with the words from a man after my own heart, a lucky devil whose father was a wealthy vintner:


“Well loved he garleek, oynons

and eek lekes,

And for to drinken strong wyn

reed as blood.”

                                                              Geoffrey Chaucer. (c.1340 - 1400)


Right on!