How to Grow Shallotscomments (3) May 12th, 2009
Shallots have enjoyed a long and happy relationship with good cooks since Biblical times, and the reason is quite simple: Shallots lend an intriguing depth of flavor to a dish without overpowering it. The 18th-century English called them scallions. The ancient Romans called them ascaloniae. Charlemagne ordered them planted in the imperial kitchen gardens during the 800s. Their name is derived from Ashkelon, a Phoenician city in what is now Israel, and the Phoenicians are thought to have spread shallots throughout the ancient world.
The French have taken shallot cookery to a high degree of refinement and have developed specialized recipes for the three shallot types, all categorized as Allium cepa aggregatum. Although many cookbook recipes call for shallots without specifying the type, connoisseurs of taste know that there are indeed many shades of flavor available on the shallot palette. Knowing which shallot to use is as much a matter of personal taste as is matching food and wine.
Happily, the home gardener can have a supply of shallots on hand all year round. Shallots are easy to grow; you need only find out which varieties are best suited to your local soil and climate.
Shallot varieties, from the familiar to the uncommon
The most common shallot is the one we know from our local market: clusters of small bulbs of various colors, shapes, and flavors, though typically these shallots have coppery brown skins and tear-shaped bulbs with rose-colored flesh.
|The shallot world is multicultural and multibubular. You'll find strains from France, Germany, Poland, and the United States. Clockwise from top: 'Sweet Besançon', Yellow shallot, 'Gray', Red potato onion, Yellow potato onion, Hybrid topsetting shallot; center: old white heirloom (nameless) and 'Gatersleben'|
The second type is the so-called potato onion or multiplier onion, which is a shallot that forms a bulb one year, then divides into a cluster of bulbs the next season. This type of shallot is ideal for hot climates and is still widely grown in the South. The most common potato onions are red or yellow.
The last group is the top-setting shallot, which sends up a pseudo-flower head that forms a small cluster of bulbs just like the so-called walking onions or tree onions.
The shallot is a true biennial. Its natural cycle, like that of most alliums, is to develop a bulb one year and then bloom the next. However, shallots, unlike onions, have been developed from clones for such a long time that they have lost the ability to produce flowers. Or, if they do blossom, the flowers are sterile. That’s why shallots must be reproduced by replanting bulbs harvested the previous season.
All shallots respond to day length, which means they adapt to the latitude where they are planted. They also adapt to other growing conditions, and over time, will evolve to resemble other alliums grown in that place. Consider what shallot variety will do well in your garden’s ecosystem, especially if you grow a particular variety for many years. For example, even if it adapts somewhat, a shallot variety from Israel is not likely to do well north of Pennsylvania; likewise, a shallot from northern France may wither in the scorching heat of Texas.
The French favor five varieties of shallot, which can sometimes be found in the United States. The ‘Gray’ shallot is the aristocrat of the shallot world. Its flavor has been likened to that of truffles or perfumed butternuts, depending on the soil and climate. Pair this shallot with a great red wine. In France, gray shallots come to market in the fall and disappear quickly because French cooks hoard them, knowing that they are also one of the best storage varieties.
The French use ‘Echalote de Poulet’, an excellent storage variety, in poultry recipes. The ‘Jersey’ shallot, named for the island off the coast of France, where it originated, is considered a type of potato onion. It has been grown in the United States since the 1820s. The flesh is streaked with red and has a distinctive nutty flavor. ‘Jermor’ has a soft flavor that blends well with duck, squab, and other fowl with dark meat. The bulbs produce large green tops that are better than chives and more delicate than spring onions. ‘Polka’, from Poland, resembles a small, white-skinned onion. It is ideally suited to the upper Midwest, where the climate is similar to Poland’s. ‘Polka’ keeps for almost a year.
Sources for shallots
These French favorites are difficult to track down in the States. I mention the French varieties for two reasons. First, they are an important part of the shallot story, and second, my hope is that by mentioning these hard-to-find shallots, I’ll stimulate demand and in turn encourage some enterprising seed house to start carrying them. There are, indeed, several U.S. sources for French shallots, which are most often sold generically, without reference to variety name.
There are also several shallots sold as yellow shallot, but this is not a distinct variety name, just a convenient label descriptive of the bulb color. Yellow shallots tend to be hardier than the red varieties, so grow them as a hedge against possible losses due to a harsh winter.
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