Friday, 23 April 2010
Sweet Pink Onions
I wandered into my local Valu-Mart a couple weeks ago, and my eye was caught by something I had never seen before: sweet pink onions, "grown from French seeds", according to the label.
As you can see, they don't look so very pink at first glace; not a bubble-gum pink for instance, and definitely not shocking pink. They do have a definite rosy cast to them though, and they look a bit pinker once cut in half. They are indeed quite sweet, with a strong aroma somewhat reminiscent of shallots. I cut one in half, lifted it up to my nose and sniffed deeply. My eyes stung just a tad, but there were no tears. You couldn't do that with your average storage onion!
That's what particularly amazes me about these onions. Most sweet onions don't store well. The famous (at least in North America) sweet onions are Vidalia and Walla-Walla, which are short-day onions and so have never grown well in Ontario. Yet here it is - April - and I am buying stored, sweet, Ontario-grown onions.
How is such a thing possible? Where did these onions come from?
The first clue was that, according to the label, they were "grown from French seeds". A little digging showed me that there is a well-known pink onion from Brittany, France: the rosé de Roscoff. This onion has a fascinating history; it has been grown in Roscoff for at least 200 years, and was taken by small boats to England where it was sold door-to-door by "Onion Johnnies". That tradition has almost died out, but the onion lives on, and now has an appellation d'origine contrôlée. In other words, if it isn't grown in Roscoff, you can't call it a rosé de Roscoff, even if you are growing it from French seeds. It's a popular and well-esteemed gourmet onion throughout most of northwestern europe, used by all the best chefs and restaurants.
In search of more information, I phoned up Frank Schroyens, the farmer who grows the sweet pink onions in Staffordville, just south of Tilsonburg. He did not mention Roscoff, but he did say that they are grown from seeds of onions grown in only one village in France. He also says they are the best onions in the world and presumably he is a man who, as they say, knows his onions. He also says he is the only one in North America growing and selling them.
Frank has been growing and marketing these sweet pink onions for 2 or 3 years now. At first, he tried selling them for a higher price than regular onions, as the seed is both very expensive and hard to get, but they did not sell well. So off to market they go at the same price as other onions. Now they are becoming known, and he can hardly keep up with the demand. It's a bit sad that now I have discovered them, they are probably going to be in short supply next year as he cannot get enough seed this year. However, he assured me that he should have plenty of seed the next year. They do like a light, sandy soil, and they grow well for him in his ex-tobacco farmland.
I was toying with the idea of planting some of these onions and saving the seed, but Franks says that doesn't work. The resulting offspring are of a different shape, and not as sweet. Pity.
Frank says they are harvested in September, and keep into May. They get stronger in flavour as they sit in storage. Indeed, that was one of the things that struck me about these onions: they have a very robust flavour for a sweet onion, yet they really are sweet and almost tearless. They cook beautifully, although I have noted that I must keep the temperature a bit more moderated than with other onions, because they contain so much sugar they will scorch more readily than less sweet onions.
I discovered, in talking to Frank, that I have been eating his shallots for several years. He sells them through the Loblaws chains and to Costco, and they comprise 95% of his business. I think he's the king of Ontario shallots, but plainly he is not content to rest on those particular laurels.
Frank particularly recommends the sweet pink onions for soup. His wife makes a soup of pink onions, leeks, celery and potatoes cooked together then puréed and finished with a touch of cream. I'll be trying that a little later this week, I think. I've got a few leeks left in the garden from last year.
And finally, keep your eyes out for something called eschallions, which Frank is growing this year. Apparently these are known in England as Banana Shallots, and they are a longer, larger, milder form of shallot.