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The shallot wars

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03/02/2011
The shallot wars

Since around 2003, a quiet battle has been going on in France.  French shallot farmers are fighting for the survival of the French shallot, both at home and abroad.  Who is the adversary?  Well, the "new, improved" Dutch shallot, which the French say does not merit the hallowed 'S' name. 

Here's why.  The true shallot, according to the French, never flowers to bear seed and so can only be--and is only--propagated by replanting shallot bulbs.  These bulbs--much like garlic cloves--then grow and multiply to form the characteristic cluster of shallots.  This cluster is something you've likely never seen, unless you've actually planted shallots yourself.  Unlike a head of garlic, shallot bulbs are joined at the base (root end) and splay outward.  The outward rotation of the bulbs increases as harvest-readiness approaches.

So why all the brouhaha about vegetatively vs. seed-grown shallots?  Well, French dogma has it that the flavor of vegetatively grown shallots--or what they label l'échalote traditionnelle--is vastly superior, and that there is no way for the consumer to tell the difference between a seed-grown shallot and a mini-onion.  This last is true.

I also think the first premise is true, for otherwise how can I explain how much I cook with shallots since coming to France?  For I'm afraid that much of what passes for shallots in the U.S. is seed-grown, and just doesn't have that indefinable deliciousness of the true shallot.  While the flavor of the shallot is often described as "strong" by apparently shallotophobic writers, it is not.  The French always describe its flavor as "fin", and very fine it is indeed.  It is not strong, yet its flavor is more concentrated than that of an onion, and much more nuanced too.  Shallots have never made me cry as I cut them up, so perhaps they contain less sulfur.

The preparatory battle in the shallot war came in 2000, when the U.S. banned importation of French shallots, along with foie gras and Roquefort, in retaliation for France's refusal of hormone-treated American beef.  But the real problem is what I'll call the Dutch false shallot.  While the French shallot requires manual planting and harvesting (hence it really is traditionnelle), the Dutch seed-grown imposter is all-mecanized, reducing production costs dramatically.  You can see where this is leading.  As of 2003, France was still the world's leading shallot producer, at 40,000 metric tons per year.

shallot scarSo how can you, the unsuspecting consumer, tell the difference between a true and a false shallot?  The first difference takes a little practice to discern.  A true shallot always has a small, more or less circular scar at the root end where it was separated from its parent cluster.  This appears as a small, flat spot that has no trace of roots on it (photo left) and it is hard to the touch.

Secondly, when you cut a shallot in half, it always has at least two 'buds' or setsof concentric scales, while an onion or seed-grown 'shallot' only has one.

The final difference, of course, is flavor.  The seed-grown item is simply insipid compared to the Real Thing.
Long Jersey shallot
Three main types of traditional shallots are grown in France.  The first--and the kind I buy most often--is the long shallot, Jersey type.  This shallot is rather large (around 2 inches long), and often presents with with two bulbs conjoined in the same envelope.  The flesh has a rosy, copper tinge.

half long Jersey shallotThe second type is the half-long Jersey type.  These bulbs are smaller, more rounded, but still coppery in color on the inside.  The flavor is not quite as fine as the long type, and as they're harder to peel and just more work all around (being smaller), I only buy them if I can't find anything else.  But they're actually perfectly acceptable.  They are usually less expensive than the long type and are therefore the variety most often offered for sale in supermarkets.  The Imposter most resembles this type.
Gray shallot
Finally, the crème of the crop is the gray shallot, so named because of its opaque, gray skin.  This skin is so thick and coriaceous that it is difficult  to cut even with a sharp knife.  You usually have to stick the point of the knife in to get the cut started.  With such a thick skin, this must be the longest-keeping shallot, right?  Wrong!  The gray shallot only keeps around 3 months and so its presence in the market is fleeting.  Its flavor, however, is the most refined and concentrated of all the shallots.  If anyone has seen this shallot in the U.S., I would love to know about it!  In France, it is grown primarily in the southwest.

So, what to do if you want to grow shallots in your garden?  Well, do some research and find certified disease-free sets.  If they are of either of the Jersey types, plant them in late winter or very early spring.  If by some miracle you've gotten hold of gray shallot sets, they need to be fall planted, and probably thoroughly mulched in colder zones..  (Make sure to pull the mulch back in early spring.)

Shallots, which are native to Palestine (and revered as a holy plant there), need full sun and extremely well-drained soil.  The body of folk knowledge in France always states that the plant prefers a rather lean soil--one that hasn't received any organic matter in at least several months.  However, professional growers information says to use plenty of nitrogen, so who knows.  (The information base on shallot growing is more confused than any other topic I've researched.)  I'd say, if your soil is light, well-drained, and has been well composted in the past, just go ahead and plant without adding anything.  If your soil is heavy clay, plant in a raised bed and hope for the best.  The only mulch that shallots tolerate is porous weed-barrier fabric.  Anything else risks keeping the soil too soggy.

Set out the bulbs about 8 inches apart in rows a foot or more apart.  Plant them so about two thirds of the bulb is in the soil, pointed end up.  Water regularly about once a week during dry weather only.  As the clusters of bulbs approach maturity, pull soil away from them, as you would for onions.

You can harvest shallots at any green stage you like and they are Mature shallots harvested a little too greendelicious that way in salads.  For storage, harvest when about 3/4 of the foliage is dry.  Allow them to bake on top of the ground in the sun for several days.  This enhances their keeping qualities and deepens their bronzey color.  Do not remove their foliage before this drying period.


Store shallots in mesh bags or baskets in a cool, dry place.  Properly cured, they'll keep longer than onions.

Not in the habit of using shallots?  Here's what you do.  Always mince one into your vinaigrette.  Saute sliced shallots in olive oil or butter, add a splash of wine and some homemade beef broth, reduce briefly, and serve over your favorite steak.  Caramilize whole shallots and make a tarte Tatin with them.  Cut them in half lengthwise, leaving their inner skin on, and braise them with a roast.  I could go on forever.

...By the way, shallots are tricky to cut up.  To make it easier, cut the shallot in half lengthwise.  Keep the root end intact and just peel back the skins.  Then hold the root end while you mince the shallot first with lengthwise cuts (stopping short of the root end), then with cross-wise cuts.  Pretty soon you, too, will be looking at your life in two parts:  Pre-Shallot and Post-Shallot.  I prefer the latter!
logo of the shallot growers union

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