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Farmers' Market Desserts
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California scientists
developed the new sweet
varieties but other
states stole the credit

California's Own Sweet Onions

Why 'Maui-type' Is a Misnomer
Torpedoes, Cipollinis and Other Alliums

Onion scientists in California deserve most of the credit for developing the modern sweet varieties of the vegetable. But onion salesmen in Vidalia, Georgia, and the island of Maui, in Hawaii, succeeded in attaching the names of their regions to the California-bred achievements.

Thus, to this day, even though California’s Imperial Valley is far and away the nation’s sweet onion-production capital, most of the farmers hawking the bulbs in California farmers markets apparently feel compelled to associate their sweet onions with another state’s good name.

A search through a couple dozen markets from Sacramento to San Diego this spring turned up just one display with a label that proclaimed "Imperial Valley Sweet Onions" – at the Laguna Beach Market in April. Meanwhile signs luring customers to so-called "Maui-type" onions were everywhere.

Jon Thogmartin is one onion farmer who refuses to stoop to such a tactic. He and his wife, Dede Bezek, who sell onions, garlic and shallots at the Santa Monica and Hollywood markets in Los Angeles County, harvest an onion that is every bit as sweet as the onions with the legendary names, Maui and Vidalia. But they decline to call their onions that, even though the onions they grow come from basically the same seeds.

"We have made a policy to put the real straight scoop out there, not a bunch of hype," Thogmartin explains. "When people come ask for a Vidalia, we say yes we have the yellow Granex," going on to explain that the two are virtually the same genetically, though Vidalias are grown in the carefully delineated region surrounding the Georgia town with that name. "They usually look at you with disbelief," Thogmartin says.

In his view, calling a California-grown Granex a "Maui-type" or Vidalia onion is a misnomer that downplays the role of sun, soil and weather on the character of the finished bulb – and that denies the California version the credit it deserves.

Vidalias are so mild that Thogmartin calls them practically tasteless – a characteristic of having been grown in sterile, sandy soil that is devoid of any trace of the sulfur compounds that help give onions their bite. Maui onions are equally devoid of pungency even though they are grown in mineral-rich volcanic soil. Consistently short tropical days and the mild upland climate where the temperature rarely exceeds 85 degree F. deserve the credit, Hawaiian farmers say.

Thogmartin’s experiments in the five years since he turned from a career in architecture to become an onion farmer have revealed that the wind, the time of planting and the precise spot in his fields where the onions are grown are all factors that can make a big difference in how the onions turn out. To prove the point, one year when he planted some of the famous, supposedly super-sweet Texas 1015Ys too late in the season, they shot way up on the spiciness scale.

Bermudas -- which are white not red -- are the sweetest onions of all the varieties that the Thogmartins have tried, though they suffered a lot of loss in the field. The yellow Granex was close behind. "We thought it was a fabulous onion but just a tad stronger than the white Bermuda," Thogmartin says. Walla Wallas, an intermediate day-length variety, ranked on a par with the yellow Granex, in the Thogmartin’s experiments.

Whatever they’re called, spring is the time to enjoy the sweets. Storage onions, distinguished by a high sulfur content that gives them a pungent taste and allows them to be stored without deterioration for six months, obscure the fact that onions are a seasonal crop. Sweeter onions, which have a much higher water content, don’t last long in storage and are harvested in California only for a few months ending in early summer.

Most of the sweet onions are short-day varieties. The line between short-day onions and long-day varieties suitable for more northerly latitudes with long summer days runs approximately through San Francisco.

Other Interesting Alliums

The popularity of sweets shouldn’t overshadow the fact that some spicy onions are just as interesting in their own way, certainly more interesting than supermarket standards. No wonder, given how supermarket varieties were reportedly selected. Bill Spencer, who with his wife Barbara grows a number of unusual onion varieties for sale in Southern and Central California farmers markets, says he once heard that onion researchers used to look for varieties suitable for commercializing by throwing onions against a wall. If they survived the experience without bruises, they made the cut.

Many of the Spencer’s favorites would have failed such a test. One of their onions that sells best – especially to restaurants – is the red torpedo from Italy. "We give them out, say barbecue this, and they come back for more next week," says Bill Spencer.

A favorite of some connoisseurs, an Italian onion called cippollini, is certainly not a favorite with farmers. It is very hard to grow and sometimes suffers extensive root rot before harvest.

Beyond onions, there are other alliums worthy of wider exposure. "Leeks haven’t been exploited nearly enough," says Ron Voss, director of the University of California’s vegetable research and information center. "Those who have tasted leeks in cooking don’t eat onions anymore."

Green garlic is another allium that could take off, Voss says. Harvesting and selling garlic before the bulbs take shape not only gives consumers fresh-picked garlic for a greater part of the year, it also helps farmers stretch their garlic season and reap some early returns from a crop that takes a long time to fully mature.

Thogmartin names the grunion as an allium on the way up in the world. A cross between an onion and garlic, the grunion was discovered by a botanist who thought it was a freak of nature, then later discovered that it is a true cross, maintaining its consistency from one generation to the next.

Cutting edge laboratory work on onions, meanwhile, is focusing on a search for a sweet onion with the healthful blood-thinning properties of pungent varieties.

Voss, for one, is skeptical. "It’s a noble goal but it’s going to be tricky to carry out," he says. It is the pungent compounds that carry the health benefits and it’s hard to see how scientists can cut out one trait without losing the other, he explains.


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