To ‘know your onions’ is a slang expression believed to originate in the UK in the 1920s, and means to be particularly knowledgeable about a subject. It is believed by some to originally refer to knowledgeableness concerning English language usage, referring to the authoritative text on the subject – by one Charles Talbot Onions.
Now I certainly don’t claim any kind of expertise about onions, but I have learned that knowing your onions from your shallots is to understand that the latter are so much more than miniature onions, or that they grow in clusters, not singly.
Shallots are also milder than onions, and sweeter too. They’re much easier to pack into jars, pickled in vinegar, and better-suited to salads.
But a key advantage is that – for us, at least, they are quicker to mature than onions, and more likely to ripen and dry fully in our soft summer sunshine and short growing season. In an especially good summer – especially the late summer, onions will out-perform shallots in terms of yield, but in an average year are more likely to provide a poor return compared to shallots. If onions are a gamble, shallots are a pleasant ramble.
Onions or shallots, alike, the scent in the sheds as they dry is powerfully evocative : wholesomeness and health ; soil and sufficiency ; labour and nature. The scent, the rustle of the drying leaves – the shape and weight of the bulbs, too, make me want to linger awhile, contented with life.
The pickled shallots are just for us, but onions and shalots alike go into most the chutneys we sell in the garden shop of the Hebridean Woolshed.
By the way, stringing shalots did not work out : many of the shalots started to rot at the neck. I broke up the string, cut off most of the dried leaves, and stored them in trays with the rest. That’s the same result as the last time I tried – with onions – back in the summer of 1979, in Wetheral, Cumbria : our first ever crop of onions in our first garden.