Monday, 27 February 2012

Know your onions

Watching the effervescent Raymond Blanc in the penultimate episode of The Very Hungry Frenchman, a number of things struck me - not least of which was just how beautiful Alsace looks.

Very Germanic, one might say.

But setting that aside, during the programme, he visited a farmer who grows seven tonnes of onions each year, comprising four varieties. These included a Roscoff, a local (very strong) onion and a 'chicken thigh' onion that looked liked a gargantuan banana shallot.

Now Blanc swears blind that the Roscoff is perfect for the classic French onion soup. But he selected the local variety for the tart he was planning to make.

Drifting into wakefulness on Saturday morning, something dawned on me: what varieties of onion could I, as a domestic British shopper and cook, call upon?




Such varieties hardly have the same aura of culinary sophistication about them.

Later, at Broadway Market, I asked organic greengrocer Mark about British varieties of onion.

"Brown," he said with a sardonic tone.



"And sometimes Spanish, which are sweeter."

He went on to explain that the only fruits or vegetables that have to be labeled by variety at the point of sale are potatoes and apples, because there are so many varieties of each.

Later still, at La Bouche, Stephane suggested that part of the difference is that France is so much larger and because it encompasses both northern and southern Europe, it effectively enjoys longer seasons.

Well fortunately for me, he has also agreed to keep stocking Roscoff onions beyond Christmas. So at least I have the opportunity to maintain my levels of culinary sophistication (stop sniggering at the back). These lovely, pink orbs are sweet and melt beautifully - hence they're great for soup but not an Alsace tart.

And at the weekend, Stephane also had strings of banana shallots from t'other side of the Channel too.

Actually, what I hadn't realised is that Roscoff onions are far from being a new import to these benighted (in allium terms at least) shores. As a hard onion, they keep well for ages and were thus perfect for the 'Onion Johnnies' - the men from Breton who used to visit these shores from France, bringing with them their onions.

They'd store their produce somewhere in the UK and then visit homes selling it, spending several months on the road.

If you ever wondered where that very British image of a Frenchman - on his bike, a string of onions around his neck, a striped shirt on his chest and a beret on his head - comes from, well now you know.

It eventually even entered the French language as ar Johniged or ar Johnniged in Breton.

Not that it was the French who introduced us to onions - that happened long before, thanks to the some geezers from Italy ("what did the Romans ever do for us?") and this staple of modern cookery became popular pretty much straight away.

Indeed, as Alan Davidson points out in The Oxford Companion to Food, the Anglo-Saxons were so enamoured of onions that they cited it often in riddles.

He gives this example.

    I am a wonderful thing, a joy to women ...
    I stand up high and steep over the bed;
    Beneath I am shaggy. Sometimes comes nigh
    A young maiden and handsome peasant's daughter,
    A maiden proud, to lay hold on me,
    She raises my redness, plunders my head,
    Fixes on me fast, feels straightaway
    What meeting me means when she thus approaches,
    A curly haired woman. Wet is the eye.

Oooh err, missus!

Those dodgy Saxon types. And people say the Germans have no sense of humour ...

But passing over that: you'd think we'd have had enough time to work out some varieties. But Mark's cynicism was not misplaced.

According to - a website with the clear (and entirely decent) aim of boosting the great British onion on behalf of British onion growers - there are mild onions and cooking onions and white onions.

There are shallots and pickling onions and green onions.

And if we're that not already impressed enough, there are also salad, red and "supasweet" onions.

But not a variety mentioned on the entire site, that I could see.

All of which left me feeling a tad depressed.

The phrase 'know you onions' apparently doesn't seem to mean actually knowing ones, err, onions.

So where does it come from?

Grammarian and lexicographer CT Onions, who edited the OED from 1895 for some years is one possible inspiration.

Mind, there was also an SG Onions, who in 1843, created sets of coins to send out to schools to help children learn their pounds, shillings and pence.

Both possibilities make sense, although the phrase seems to have come into existence in the 1920s - at the height of the reign of the Onion Johnnies, as it happens.

And although I can, at this stage, give you no names of British onions - beyond white, red, salad etc - I'm fairly certain that, after reading this post, you'll know your onions better than before.

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