Friday, January 06, 2012

La vraie echalote

'Hative de Niort' shallots
Well. Just when you thought you were starting to know quite a lot, you realise you don't know a damn thing at at all.

I've been growing shallots for many years now. I like their ability to store for – well, pretty indefinitely, which makes them a good follow-on once the main crop of onions is over. And there's something rather pleasing about watching them grow and magically spread into that open palm of multiple bulbs.

But I've never been able to get that thing the chefs go on about – the whole shallot flavour thing. Some particularly picky chefs refuse to use anything else. All the shallots I'd grown were distinctly oniony: nothing to choose, in fact, between them and my regular onions.

Until... I grew French shallots.

'Hative de Niort' was the one that opened my eyes. I can't remember where I came across them: I was probably on the hunt for my more usual 'Golden Gourmet' or 'Red Sun'.

I have a weakness for any French vegetables as they are invariably exceptionally good to eat. Think 'Vitelotte' potatoes; 'Charentais' melons; 'Chantenay' carrots. Sometimes they're trickier to grow: but that's only because for the French taste is everything and if you can't grow it, well tant pis. And all the better for that, I say (though I defy anyone to produce a 'Marmande' beefsteak tomato with more edible flesh than blemishes).

Back to shallots, 'Hative de Niort' were a revelation. Such plumpness. Such flavour. By far, in fact by a country mile the best shallots I have ever, ever grown. And the flavour was everything they said a shallot should be: mild, subtle, definitely different from onions. Ah. So this is what they were on about.

I graduated from 'Hative de Niort' to 'Echalote Grise', which is just French for Grey Shallot. Doesn't sound very enticing, until you grow the actual shallot: again, plump, with a smoky sheen to the skin, richly flavoured and so silkily beautiful that other shallots simply curl up in embarrassment alongside.

Now I discover from my new favourite gardening blog, 'Au Potager' (written in English by an American garden writer from Indianapolis living in Paris and Normandy.... oh, do keep up) that there's a reason for this head-and-shoulders superiority.

And that reason is that until now, I haven't been growing shallots at all.

You see, the French shallot grows differently. If you buy a packet of shallot seeds, at least according to French growers, you aren't buying shallots at all.

(Don't mention this to the Dutch, who by and large are responsible for the seed-grown varieties. Though they are also behind standard-issue bargain-basement supermarket tomatoes, so that says it all, really).

I confess I've never gone to the trouble of growing shallots from seed: far too lazy when sets are available. But of course 'shallot' sets like the best-selling 'Golden Gourmet' are technically seed-raised.
And what about exhibition shallot growers, who make a point of raising their shallots from seed – longer growing season, better selection of varieties and less tendency to bolt, so you're more likely to end up with perfect shallots for sweeping the board at the village horticultural show. Except they aren't shallots.

L'├ęchalote traditionnelle, or true shallot, however, propagates itself vegetatively, and – get this – doesn't ever set seed. And the flavour is therefore fully developed, rich, elegant, vastly superior.

Seed-grown shallots, on the other hand, are just mini-onions, with the same sharp taste. So that explains my disappointing 'Golden Gourmets' then. And you've got to ask yourself what is the point of that.

To tell the difference, look for the scar on the root plate: French shallots have a small flat rootless area where the offset came away from the parent. Also traditional shallots have two central cores when you cut the bulb open: seed-raised have just one.

So the hunt begins for as many French ├ęchalote traditionelle varieties as I can find. It's a short list:

Echalote Grise: said to have superior flavour even by French standards. I think 'Griselle' is the same thing
Hative de Niort: fatter, flatter bulbs: super, duper flavour
Jermor, Longor: recently-bred in France and 'Jersey' long types: inferior to the above but still good

If anyone else has found other varieties for me to try, do let me know.


Janet said...

I haven't noticed much difference between onions and shallots except in storage. I must try some of the French varieties....

Arabella Sock said...

We discovered Echalote Gris in a French market years ago and it is perfect for making Confiture. The shallots are very dense and tightly packed (if that makes sense) so they don't fall apart in the long cooking process. On the other hand they are particularly difficult to peel so making the confiture is a real 'labour of love'. I think French chefs favour them for similar reasons.

The Constant Gardener said...

Hi Janet - my guess is you've probably been growing the (more widely available) Dutch ones which are seed raised. See if you can hunt down some Hative de Niort this year - I guarantee you'll be surprised...

Hi Arabella, I forgot to mention the difficulty in peeling! Yes they're a bit of a pain to prepare but not so much so that they're not worth it :D Like the sound of that confiture...

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