We love onions. We were going to name one of our children Onions but after some thought we agreed that it would have made school a nightmare for her. It turns out Cauliflower wasn’t much better of a choice.
Onions have been cultivated and revered for more than five millenia. To ancient Egyptians the vegetable was sacred and symbolised eternity — images of the onion decorate the inner sanctums of the pyramids and mummies have regularly been found buried with them in the eye sockets and pelvic region. I’m sure the onion was very flattered by that type of attention, but it would have felt a little unfulfilled for the rest of its history had it not been for the intervention of European cuisine. Onions have been foundational to European cooking since the end of the Middle Ages, but it is the French that unlocked the transcendent potential of this emotive little bulb. There is the rich depth of a French onion soup and there is the ephemeral fantasy of a beurre blanc — everything in between is real life. Without the onion we would not have the base flavour behind favourite dishes the world over. As iconic American home chef, Julia Childs, said: it’s hard to imagine civilisation without them.
Like movies about dogs, onions sometimes make me cry. I once heard that to avoid this problem you should chill the onions before slicing them, but even with a pocket of them in the fridge Lassie still broke my heart. According to Larousse Gastronomique (the bible of all things culinary, so no arguments please) chilling onions is an effective way to slow the release of allyl sulphide – the substance that makes your eyes water when you slice them. Before chopping, pop the onion into the freezer for 10 minutes, or the fridge for an hour.
Some more useful tips from Larousse:
A little manic, but brilliant, here is Gordon Ramsay showing how winners chop onions: