Rose's October Shop Watch - Roscoff Onions
Know your onions
Imagine my embarrassment when a friend recently asked me what was the difference between brown, white and red onions during a supper party. Well, I hummed and hawed and spluttered about the colour red being good in certain dishes, and that brown was the workhorse of onions. But basically, I was flummoxed. Onions are such a ubiquitous ingredient that I never stopped to think about them. I had to own up that I did not know what the differences were. (I only knew that I instinctively veer towards white ones, although they are hard to find in the UK.)
This called for further research. To start, onions are a member of the allium family which also includes garlic, leeks and chives, as well as spring onions, Catalan calçots and shallots. Onions are so basic and indispensable an ingredient in our cooking repertoire it is difficult to remember a savoury recipe that does not start with softening a chopped onion. They have an ancient place in history, being worshipped by the Egyptians who believed their spherical shape and concentric rings symbolised eternal life. The ancient Greek and Roman athletes all believed that onions improved their performance. And they do have a reputation as an aphrodisiac – it is customary in France for newly-weds to be served French onion soup! Whilst all onions are mostly interchangeable, what distinguishes the brown from the red from the white?
Brown onions are the cheapest and are perfectly suited for cooking. They are what is normally meant when a recipe calls for an onion. They can be thought of as reliable, trustworthy, and honest in character. They are quite pungent and sharp when raw, but mellow with cooking. They are just a good all-round, all-purpose cooking onion.
Red onions have become very popular and are often specified in recipes, although, as my good friend Simon Hopkinson (to whom I often go when I have a culinary conundrum) points out, they are annoying in the way they often turn a horrid grey colour once stewed/fried. They can also discolour pale ingredients like eggs. They are sharper in character and are best used raw where their lovely colour is retained. So, think salads like a Greek one with feta, tomatoes and mint. They also come into their own when grilled or barbecued as they hold up well and char nicely without collapsing.
The white onion is harder to find in the UK but commonplace on the continent. They have a thin, fragile almost papery skin, and I often use them raw. They are milder and give the sweetest flavour - as Simon commented “perfect for the silkiest sauce Soubise”. I always gravitate towards them when I see them in stock at a greengrocers.
Now I am going to throw something else into the mix – the pink onion. And they are truly my favourites. Tesco often stock a British variety which is grown on the Essex and Suffolk border, so look for them instore. They have a subtle and sweet taste and are light pink in colour. But the true pink hero is the Roscoff onion – pearly pink, full of flavour, fragrant, slightly sweet, and melt in the mouth. They have been grown around the area of Roscoff in Brittany since the 17th century. It was the Roscoff onion which created the stereotype of a Frenchman, dressed in a Breton striped top, cycling with a string of onions around his neck. They are recognised with an AOC approved label and there is even a Fête de l’Oignon in August to celebrate its harvest.
If you live in London the wonderful butcher H G Walter sell them in a kilo plait. But, if you are looking online, the very best place to buy them is from the company Natoora who specialise in providing seasonal ingredients from all over Europe (their promise is radical seasonality, revolutionary flavour). They supply Ocado so buy them with your next delivery, or you can go direct to Natoora by downloading their app. And while you are looking at the onions order some of the other wonderful seasonal produce to make the delivery charge worthwhile.
Now you know your onions!
In the pink
Natoora - £6.95 a kilo, download the app
Ocado - £3.75 for 450g
HG Walter - £6.90 a kilo
(Tesco sell pink onions in some stores)