Eating a plateful of onions usually doesn’t override someone’s cravings or dreams, there is a succulent niche Italian variety that might change the minds of even non-onion eaters.
Every week, Francesco Calabro drives his truck from Calabria to Rome to sell premium red onions that grow along the coast around Tropea, a town perched on the southern tip of Italy.
His Roman customers love these bulbs: crunchy, exceptionally sweet and delicate. More importantly, they don’t make you cry as much as regular onions when you slice them.
In Tropea, onions are nicknamed “the red gold of Calabria” and are said to have more health benefits than regular onions. Although there is no solid science to prove it, locals claim that onions have a wide range of health benefits, from anti-aging to aphrodisiac action.
“My cardiologist says the best way to avoid heart problems is to eat red onions, along with chili peppers and drink wine, to promote blood circulation. It’s been our natural antibiotic for centuries,” says Calabro.
No tears, strong colors
According to tradition, Phoenician sailors brought red onions from Central Asia to Calabria – the “toe” of the Italian “boot” – 4,000 years ago. Today, onions from Tropea – which have Protected Geographical Product, or IGP, status – grow on a 60-mile stretch of the Calabrian coast from the town of Amantea to the Capo Vaticano peninsula below. of Tropea.
But what makes these onions so special and unique?
The mild coastal climate with constant temperatures all year round, sunny days and the northern “tramontane” breeze coming from the hills overlooking the shore creates a microclimate. The fertile soil, containing sand from the Tyrrhenian beaches, is a natural booster.
“It is this particular habitat, as well as the large amount of water contained in red onions, which makes them less aggressive when sliced and less irritating to the human eye,” explains Giovanni Schiariti, a producer of red onions of Tropea, which 40 years ago he was among the founders of a network that obtained the status of IGP of the region. “You won’t shed tears like a baby.”
The distinctive reddish color is because they’re rich in anthocyanins — colorful plant pigments full of antioxidants, says Michele Pugliese, owner of a restaurant in Tropea. The sweet flavor is not due to higher amounts of sugar, but to fewer chemical compounds of pyruvic acid and sulfur compounds that normally make onions pungent.
What makes them great is not just their taste, but their versatility in local cuisine and the many ways to cook and enjoy them.
Tropea’s annual Red Onion Festival, held each spring in the town, pays homage to what Italians call the “Queen of Onions” with food stalls and cooking demonstrations.
Tropea onions are eaten raw – picked directly from the plot – or as an onion salad with other vegetables. Farmers still eat lunch of red onions while working in the fields.
“I love eating onion salad for lunch right after pasta, it’s nutritious and refreshing,” says Schiariti.
Onions are equally delicious on a bruschetta in extra virgin olive oil, served with beans, baked or fried in a frittata potato omelette – a typical Easter lunch dish in the region.
“If you do not prepare red onion frittata share with relatives and friends, it is better not to show up – stay at home,” says Calabro.
The rufous cipolla are the symbol of Tropea, a town nicknamed the “Pearl of the Tyrrhenian Sea” located on the “Coast of the Gods” and surrounded by secluded coves, sparkling blue waters and powdery beaches.
Red onions hang from shop walls and stalls lining the maze-like lanes. Rows of grand palaces lead to a church perched on a rock that protrudes from the city.
Tropea’s red onions are part of the locals’ DNA, a distinctive trait of their culinary tradition and identity that fills them with pride.
They are eaten at any time of the day in different ways and have almost replaced garlic in the preparation of dishes. There are even red onion pizzas, jams and ice cream alongside caramelized red onions and red onion cakes.
“They are so ingrained in us, an icon of our land and our cuisine, that we take them for granted, much like the way the Romans are so used to the Colosseum,” says Pugliese, owner of Osteria della Cipolla. Rossa de Tropea, a posh non-tavern with a handful of tables, which is the ‘temple’ of red onion delights.
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How to tell a fake
Romana Schiariti – the chef, wife of Pugliese and a distant relative of Giovanni Schiariti – comes from a family of farmers and grew up learning to recognize a real red onion from Tropea from a fake one grown outside the official production area with just a bite.
“She has a trained palate, but it’s very hard not to be fooled. Tropea’s original red onion is not only sweet, it has a pleasant, delicate herbal flavor and is neither pungent nor sour,” says Pugliese.
Color is key: if it’s brownish purple, it’s a fake. Tropea red onions are a bright pinkish red – both the outer skin and the color-streaked inner layers. While onion production has spread over nearly half of the wider region of Calabria, including hills away from the sea, only those in the IGP zone are the real deal, in particular, points out Pugliese. , those grown in the “historic area surrounding Tropea”.
Tropea onions are planted in August and harvested between January and May, with the first tasty bulbs (called “cipollotti”) white and rounder than the ripe, elongated purple-red in color bulbs. If you happen to eat a fresh red onion in June, it’s probably a fake, he warns.
Once out of season, Tropea’s red onions are sun-dried and tied in braids, primarily for use as a dressing or garnish during the summer and fall when none are available. of charges.
How to eat them
Chef Schiariti makes sweet and sour red onion cream, jam and sells artisanal ricotta covered in red onion powder alongside jars of red onions swimming in olive oil and vinegar.
She also uses red onions for a mustard-style mash and for desserts including jam pies and brioches.
“Depending on how you eat and cook them, whether raw, roasted, baked or browned, the flavor changes,” says Pugliese.
Schiariti’s scrumptious signature dishes include spaghettoni (wide spaghetti) with cipolotti and cipolotti with beans and pears. She also makes red onions stuffed with vegetables and dried fruits, and creative combinations of fish and onion.
Meanwhile, Giovanni Schiariti, the producer, uses dried red onion flakes to enhance the flavor of hams and cheeses.
Bread and onions
In the past, old locals even ate breakfast with red onions, which were supposed to provide a dose of energy to face the day. The typical farmer’s meal was shutter and cipolle — bread and onions. It was, and still is, such a humble dish that today it is used as shorthand for a state of poverty.
Over time, Tropea’s cuisine has become more sophisticated. Households now add red onions to stockfish, braised veal and Calzone lard pies. They prepare them like gratins, stuff them with tuna and add sliced red onions on the lamb skewers and on the white bait. Red onion omelettes are spiced with chilli, potatoes and zucchini.
Calabro says he likes to stick to the simple recipes of his ancestors like halved roasted cipolotto and tuna, red onion and potato salads.
And they’re not just good to eat. The “onion heritage” of the locals includes valuable remedies passed down from generation to generation.
In the event of a cold, cough or sore throat, locals recommend cutting an onion in half and placing the two pieces in the evening on the bedside table, near the nose, to inhale the therapeutic scent while sleeping. This method apparently also helps with insomnia.
And if you are stung by a wasp, rubbing a slice of fresh onion on the skin can prevent inflammation and itching.
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