Digging into the World of Onions

Words and images: Vicki Ravlich-Horan

One of the earliest cultivated crops, onions are grown and eaten throughout the world. While almost every country grows onions, many run short of their domestic crop just as the New Zealand harvest is underway. This places New Zealand in a great position to export this crucial crop with us sending approx. 80% of our onions to the Northern Hemisphere each year.

Wilcox are one of New Zealand’s largest onion growers, and while they send the majority overseas, there is no doubt the domestic appetite for onions is strong. Someone who knows this first-hand is Gus Tissink from Bidfresh Hamilton, who supplies local chefs with fresh produce, and in the case of onions, this amounts to nearly three tonnes a week.

Early this year Gus and I took a quick trip up the motorway, donned our gumboots and visited Wilcox’s fields and HQ in Pukekohe to see the onion harvest in action. While readily available all year round, onions do have a season. Planted in the winter, new season onions begin to be dug up just before Christmas. This early crop has their green tops hand clipped before the bulbs are lifted out of the ground and left in the sun to dry. Drying the skins off helps to protect the onions, which could be stored for nearly a year.

By mid-January the main harvest is underway and by April the year’s crop will all be safely tucked away in storage. Once dug, the fresh onions are kept in the field to dry for 2–3 weeks. They are turned at least once to avoid sunburn before a giant harvester and tractor perform a highly choreographed and practised routine up and down the rows to pick them all up. From the field they are sent to be sorted and graded. Gus’s clients prefer the big ones, while you and I tend to like them a little smaller.

Wilcox grow 26,000 tonnes between their Pukekohe and Matamata farms. Brown onions, the most popular onion in New Zealand, account for two thirds of this. Funnily enough, chef’s preferences, according to Gus, are not so one sided, with the split between red onions and brown being a lot more evenly split. This, Gus believes, could be attributed to the preference for red onions in fresh salads and sandwiches.

Dean Langrell-Read, Wilcox’s Marketing Manager and our guide for the day, says our humidity makes growing white onions, an onion popular overseas, which is eaten raw in salads and sandwiches, problematic. Trials are underway for an alternative to our mainstays, the brown or red onions. It’s not white, says Dean, but it is milder; the downside is it doesn’t keep as long as New Zealand’s hero onion, the Pukekohe Long Keeper.

As onions are available all year round, how should we store them? While most of the year a cool, dark spot away from your potatoes is best. Towards the end of the season (October/November) Dean says you may want to pop them in the fridge, especially the red ones.

Brown Onions
How do you describe an onion that is almost everyone’s go to? When a recipe calls for an onion this is the guy. With a sharp flavour, the brown onion comes into its own when cooked. The sulphuric flavour turns to sweetness creating the base to so many recipes.

Red Onions
Sweetness is what sets the red onion apart from the common brown. That natural sweetness makes it perfect for pickling or for caramelising. That sweetness can also counter the strong onion flavour and why, if sliced very thinly, you can get away with adding them to salads raw. The other obvious draw to a red onion is its colour. That deep red hue provides a vibrant pop of colour that other onions just can’t. I love them in a stir fry, in a roast vegetable salad, or skewered on kebabs and barbequed.

Spring Onions
Also known as scallions, these sweet and mild onions are all about freshness and texture. Their gentle onion flavour gets stronger the closer you get to the dark green tops.

Favoured by chefs for their sweetness, very few home cooks bother with these fiddly, often double-bulbed onions. In Asian cuisine thinly sliced shallots are deep fried and used as a delicious crunchy addition to dishes from congee to curry. They make a beautiful salad—drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil then slowly roast. Serve on a bed of rocket with a sharp fetta to balance the onion’s sweetness.

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