Shallot or not?

Shallots have been cultivated since ancient times, possibly originating in or around Ashkelon, now a city in modern day Israel, for which a former classification as A. ascalonicum was named, as well as the term scallion, which is now applied to several sorts of allium grown for use whilst green and typically with little bulb. Shallots are well regarded for their culinary properties, with a more refined flavour than onions. The question is, though, what constitutes a shallot and how does it differ from an onion?

The trivial answer considers propagation: onions are propagated by seed, whilst shallots are propagated vegetatively. Of course, many will grow onions from sets, but these are merely immature bulbs grown from seed in the previous season. An onion seed can produce one onion or one set, and an onion set produces one mature onion. One shallot, however, produces a number of offsets; the bulb divides in much the same way as a clove of garlic develops into a bulb comprising many cloves. Shallots, like garlic, are joined at the root plate, but unlike garlic are not enclosed in an outer skin. This division of the shallot is one way in which to differentiate between the two. However, that does not adequately resolve the question.

There are two species of allium that may be referred to as shallots. The first, and one that cannot be disputed, is Allium oschaninii. This is the échalote grise, or grey shallot, of the French, highly prized for its flavour and considered by many to be the very finest. It is not something that can be readily found in Britain. The second species is Allium cepa, to which belong the onions and the shallots that one can readily find in Britain. Two groups are of interest here: Allium cepa var. cepa and Allium cepa var. aggregatum. The former are onions and the latter, as the name suggests, comprises those sorts that can multiply by division, which includes shallots and the potato onion (more on that one later).

The échalote grise is always propagated vegetatively, for one rather good reason: it does not set seed. One might wonder how such a vegetable came about, but the grey shallot is not the only example of a crop that is now propagated vegetatively; horseradish, for example, is often considered to be sterile. It is not strictly true, but for most purposes it is reproduced from root cuttings. No doubt somewhere in the distant ancestry of the grey shallot was a bulb that bore flowers that set viable seed but somewhere in the selection process, whether naturally or with human intervention, this ability was lost and they are now only propagated vegetatively. There is, then, little variation in the grey shallot, with no method for breeding new strains, save the possibility of occasional sports.

Those shallots belonging to the aggregatum group of A. cepa were historically known as the Jersey shallot; they may also be known as the pink or red shallot. Of old, the grey shallot was also referred to as the ‘true shallot’ and the Jersey shallot as the ‘false shallot’. The reason was that the Jersey shallot, although quite capable of multiplying vegetatively also sets seed. It is for this reason that one has available a wide range of cultivars. Cultivars of the Jersey shallot include Jermor, Vigamor, and Longor, and I have grown a great many of these. Whether they set seed or not, gardeners cultivate these by planting bulbs.

The French may be reluctant to have the Jersey shallot called a shallot, and I have some sympathy for this view. Nonetheless, there is a worse offender: those onions masquerading as shallots. These bandits are grown from seed. One of these, the so-called banana shallot or echalion is marketed as a French shallot. My local supermarket describes them thus: “A traditional French style shallot”. I must confess I get quite angry with marketing folk and the abuse of the word ‘style’, for which one may, admittedly with some degree of cynicism, generally read ‘cheap fake that does a poor job of imitating the real thing’.

The echalion shallot - it's nice but shallot it's not

The echalion shallot – it’s nice but shallot it’s not

The banana shallots are nice onions and I do buy them; they are mild, easily peeled and prepared, and good in raw dishes as well as cooked. They are not, though, to my mind, shallots. They are not even Jersey shallots. I have seen them referred to as a cross between a (Jersey) shallot and an onion; whether this is correct or not I do not know. I have seen them classified as Allium cepa var. aggregatum, which I really do not feel is appropriate. I had one begin to grow only recently and noted, as I have in the past, the single leaf forming, rather than the bunch of leaves one sees with a proper shallot.

Banana shallots seem to be increasing in popularity and there are good reasons. Seed sown onions – and an onion it is – can be harvested mechanically. Real shallots – l’echalote traditionnelle as the French would say – are more labour intensive. Why, though, are the so-called banana shallots so much more expensive than onions, after all, do they take any more effort to produce when grown from seed? The answer, I guess, is because they can. They are marketed as a premium product with a price to match. My local supermarket sells them loose at £2.99/kg, and even more expensive bagged, and onions at 80p/kg. That, I would guess, is why they are promoted as something special when they are, in reality, just a pleasant sort of onion.

The Dutch are well known for their efforts in the breeding of fruit and vegetables and have produced numerous so-called shallots that are grown from seed. There are even F1 hybrid shallots, which are just wrong. These I have no intention of growing and I cannot see why one would call them a shallot. They are, at best, somewhat shallot like onions.

I mentioned earlier the potato onion, an allium than one may not have come across. It is, like shallots, cultivated vegetatively. The distinction between the two is somewhat unclear. The potato onion, also known as the multiplier onion, divides like a shallot but produces bulbs more closely resembling an onion. Some old texts recommend them highly, but one is now hard pressed indeed to find any bulbs from which stock may be propagated. Some considered them a valuable crop, said to store particularly well. They appear, though, to have fallen foul of the industrialisation of agriculture. The concern is that the true shallot, and even vegetatively propagated Jersey shallots, may follow suit.

I do not mind at all the cultivation and sale of the echalion, or indeed other so-called shallots grown from seed, although I tend to object to hybrids. In my view, they should not be called shallots but onions. Nor should they carry the premium that they do without good reason. Shallots should be propagated vegetatively. Alongside the imposters it would be nice to see the real thing; those I would happily pay a premium for.

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