It’s only January and we’ve used up the last of our stored bulb onions, which would be sad if not for shallots. As I bring a bowl of these chestnut beauties up the basement steps, my mouth starts to water, because I know what lies ahead. A slow simmer in butter or olive oil transforms shallots into a dream version of caramelised onions. Whether I’m chopping and cooking shallots for risotto, pizza, or some incredible sauce, I cook extra to sprinkle with sea salt and eat straight from the pan. They are that good.
If you want to enjoy your own home grown gourmet shallots at this time next year, you can get started now. Shallots can be grown from either sets (small shallots) or seeds. Seeds are becoming increasingly popular because they insure an affordable, disease-free start. When sown indoors in late winter, seed-sown varieties developed in Holland including ‘Ambition’, ‘Matador’, ‘Saffron’ and others will produce beautiful, high quality shallots by late summer.
Seed-sown varieties will produce 3 to 4 per shallots per plant, but shallots grown from sprouting cloves, called "sets," often grow into a dense nest of a dozen or more shallots. This is especially true in mild winter areas, where shallots can be planted in fall and grown through winter. However, the long dormancy period that makes shallots such good keepers tends to jive better with spring planting in most areas.
Consider the calendar: When shallots start dying back in August, you pull the plants and cure the crop in a warm place for about three weeks. Cured shallots will remain dormant when kept in a cool place for at least 6 months, with some going much longer.
In my experience, some of the medium and small shallots begin showing a bump near the top of the bulb when they are ready to emerge from dormancy. This typically happens from late winter to early spring, so I must conclude that shallots want to be planted in spring in my climate.
Incidentally, you can begin by growing a bed of shallots from seed, and then replant a few of your cloves the following year. Better yet, try a shallot from seed and adopt a vegetatively propagated heirloom variety. Here are several excellent sources for sets and seed in the UK, the USA, and Canada. Note that in Australia, the produce industry has changed the name of this vegetable to eschalot.
By Barbara Pleasant