Onions belong to the genus Allium, which includes around 500 species of plant, although only a handful are edible. But when it comes to staple foods, there are few more important than the onion.
This reliable vegetable, along with garlic and leeks were known to the oldest civilisations on the planet, and there are records of the Ancient Egyptians and the Mesopotamians cooking with onions. Although it has been regarded as a lowly vegetable at various times in history, due to its strong, unrefined taste, its versatility has always won people over. After all, you can cook an onion in pretty much any way you like from baking and boiling to grilling and frying.
The vegetable is thought to have originated in Asia, though it is possible that it grew wild on most continents. Its durability throughout the winter months helped to make it popular to early civilisations, and the Egyptians even went so far as to worship it, believing that its shape and rings were a symbol of eternity. There is even evidence of ornamental onions crafted from solid gold, an honour not conferred on any other vegetable! The Greeks also loved the onion, believing that it improved the health of the blood, while it also became a staple of the Roman Diet.
Throughout the Middle Ages, onions were prescribed for a variety of conditions, from hair loss and snake bites to headaches, and with its dual use as medicine and food, it was not surprising that the onion was one of the crops that the Puritans took to the Americas.
Although the onion is eaten all around the world, England is one of the leading producers of this crop. In fact, there are 10,000 hectares in England given over to the production of onions, mostly in the east of the country, and England also holds the record for producing the world’s biggest onion, grown in Leicestershire, which weighed in at an impressive 18lb 11 ½ oz!
Over the centuries, onion growers have refined their art, producing new varieties, so that we can choose from a bewildering array of onion options. You can find onions grouped by colour, from red and yellow to green, or by shape, ranging from round to slender and taste, from sweet to strong. And now that scientists have confirmed what the doctors of old knew, that onions are an important source of health, helping to block cancer and lower cholesterol, onions are as popular as ever. Here are some of the most popular English onions you are likely to come across.
This is one of the best known varieties among professional onion growers and one of many to have been created here in England. This variety produces a characteristic domed, onion, yellow-brown in colour, with a narrow neck and quite a touch skin. A tasty and affordable onion, the Alpha is known to turn dry quicker than some other varieties, but remains popular with chefs across all cuisines.
One of the most well-liked onions grown in England, the Jagro is a variety produced through a hybrid of the Stuttgart variety. Its appearance is a semi-globe, and it has a pleasant brown skin, while producing a solid, pungent flavour, making it ideal for cooking.
Another variation on an earlier crop, the Setton was produced by experimenting with the Sturon variety, and the result is a popular and long-storing vegetable. These onions have a rounded, uniform shape and a light brown skin, and have proven to be excellent cooking onions, as they offer a strong flavour that can enhance most dishes and salads. They are known for their high yields and they can be stored for longer than most competing varieties.
Red onions are eye-catching vegetables, and the Red Baron is one of the best. A late maturing onion, it offers flattish, round bulbs in a distinctive rich dark red colour. The skin is eye catching and the taste is stronger and more pungent than the average onion, making it a perfect addition to salads.
Another popular red onion hybrid which offers uniform, round bulbs with a beautiful red colour. This variety is known for the high quality of its skin and its strong flavour. Like most red onions it can be eaten raw, making it ideal for everything from salads to sandwiches.
There are few more attractive English-grown onions than the Rosanna. This variety is a distinctive and appealing reddish brown, with a semi-globe shaped bulb, and when sliced, it shows off beautiful pink rings. This is a subtle onion, that is less pungent than many comparable varieties, and this subtle taste means that it can be used in sandwiches and cooked dishes alike, while its attractive appearance makes it perfect for eye-catching salads and buffets.
English onion growers have continued to develop high quality new varieties over the years, and the Centro is a perfect example of the English onion-growing graft. Introduced in 2008, the Centro has proven such a success that it is now exported to more than 16 nations around the world. A versatile golden-brown onion, known for its firmness, storage ability and attractive skin, this is one of the most popular and durable brands of onion grown in England today.
Another success of the onion-growing arts, the Hybound is a high yielding variety that was developed from the original Rijnsbuger onion. It produces attractive brown bulbs that present a straw-coloured outer skin that offers plenty of protection. Perfect for most culinary uses, the Hybound has excellent storage qualities, making it ideal for storing in food cupboards and sheds over winter.