This weekend I have been gathering in the onions (Allium cepa). They are nice and dry, and easy to lift.
The crop is modest: about 1.5 kg this time. Some – perhaps half a kilo – were taken previously, and I have left a small patch in the bed to collect later. The bulbs vary in size, from small to pretty respectable. The soil preparation in this end of raised bed 4 was perhaps inadequate – just a dressing of compost – whereas the rest of the bed was dug out and treated the hugelkultur way before filling in with mixed soil, sand and compost on top. There was no supplementary feeding.
With these caveats, the onions have turned out well: firm, juicy and aromatic, with no sign of going to seed. If they are small, that suits me well: I don’t fling my onions about when I cook, or they overpower the myriad flavours I love in vegetarian food.
Still, the shallots (A. cepa Aggregatum) in raised bed 2 are behind, and it will be a while before I can lift them. The leaves are surprisingly green, given the summer heat, and the bulbs have not really formed, but since the shallots were sown as seeds rather than planted as sets (or baby bulbs, like the onions) this is perhaps to be expected. The few I have are in any case something of an experiment as I’ve never grown them before, but I like the flavour and decided to give them a whirl.
Personally, I’m not very attached to the Allium family, but their versatility makes them a valuable addition to the kitchen. Expert organic gardener Charles Dowding considers them a “fine vegetable to grow as well as to eat.” He finds their long, round leaves and upright habit “strangely inspiring” among the otherwise timid early spring veg in his British garden. And, as he notes, they are the basis of most soups and many savoury dishes, and thus truly a valuable part of the kitchen garden*.
Onions are so widely used in Middle Eastern cooking as to be a staple. Meat and fish dishes; soups; vegetable stews like okra cooked in tomato sauce with or without chunks of meat; pickles; and salads – all of them would lack an essential element without onions. They are also the crowning glory of a simple meal such as koshari* or megadarra*, fried to a crisp golden colour and sprinkled liberally on top.
There is a curious cross-over between Middle Eastern cuisine and an Italian recipe for cipolline in agrodolce mentioned by the doyenne of C20 British cookery writers, Elizabeth David, in “Italian Food”*. Here, the onions are cooked briefly in water, then gently sauteed in olive oil before adding vinegar, bay leaf, cloves, sugar and salt. Claudia Roden has a similar recipe in her “Book of Middle Eastern Food”*, but with the addition of sultanas and mint, and without the cloves.
The roots of onions are lost in the mists of time. Ancient Egyptians grew them, ate them and used them medicinally. It’s a cliche that the pyramid-builders were fed rations of bread, onions and barley beer. That’s a spartan diet on which to build the only remaining Wonders of the World: surely there were lentils in there too? Alliums were among the food supplies found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb and they are seen in some wall paintings in the tombs of minor officials of ancient Egypt.
Nowadays, every street stall selling the national breakfast dish of wholemeal flat bread and ful beans will also have spring onions to accompany them… An interesting way to start the day, you might think.
In medicine, the juice has valuable diuretic and expectorant properties, lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, and eases gastric complaints. Taken externally, it is useful against boils and acne. Onions were certainly known as a weapon in the herbal armoury in late medieval/Renaissance England: the diarist John Aubrey mentions the proverb*:
Eat Leekes in Lide (Lent) and ramsins in May
And all the yeare after, the physitians may play.
Ramsins, the charming Old English word for onions, were prescribed for treating colds and coughs. I love the choice of words in Old English: for example, “pilewort” (lesser celandine) leaves nothing to the imagination!
Final flourish on the theme of onions must go to our trusty chives (A. schoenoprasum). They have been a wonderful feature of the herb bed for years, produce flowers for the bees and propagate for the humans in abundance, and add heaps of flavour to my salad bowl!
Organic Gardening the Natural No-dig Way, Charles Dowding, Green Books
Koshari and megadarra are dishes of rice and lentils with or without the addition of small pasta shapes, served with hot tomato sauce and fried onion garnish, and a staple of the diet for millions across the Middle East and North Africa.
Italian Food, Elizabeth David, Penguin Books
A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden, Penguin Books
John Aubrey, C17 diarist, quoted in The Gardens of the British Working Class, Margaret Willes, Yale University Press