Silvia Marchetti, CNN
Eating a plate of onions doesn’t usually top anyone’s food cravings or dreams there’s one succulent, niche Italian variety that might make even die-hard no-onion eaters change their minds.
Each week Francesco Calabro drives his lorry from Calabria to Rome to sell premium red onions that grow along the coast around Tropea, a clifftop town on Italy’s southern tip.
His Roman clients go mad for these bulbs: crunchy, exceptionally sweet and delicate. Most importantly, they don’t make you cry as much as ordinary onions when you slice them.
In Tropea, the onions are dubbed “Calabria’s red gold” and are said to have more health benefits than regular onions. Although there’s no hard science to back it up, locals claim the onions have a wide range of health benefits from combating old age, to acting as an aphrodisiac.
“My cardiologist says the best way to avoid heart problems is by eating red onions, alongside chili pepper and drinking wine, to help blood circulation. It’s been our natural antibiotic for centuries”, says Calabro.
No tears, strong colors
According to tradition, Phoenician sailors imported the red onions from Central Asia to Calabria — the “toe” of Italy’s “boot” — 4,000 years ago. Today, Tropea onions — which bear protected geographical produce, or IGP, status — grow on a 60-mile stretch of Calabrian coastland running from the town of Amantea down to the Capo Vaticano peninsula, below Tropea.
But what makes these onions so special and unique?
The mild coastal climate with constant year-round temperatures, sunny days and the northern “tramontana” 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’s this particular habitat, along with the high quantity of water contained in the red onions, which makes them less aggressive when they are sliced and not so irritating to the human eye,” says Giovanni Schiariti, a Tropea red onion grower, who 40 years ago was among the founders of a network that won the area IGP status. “You won’t be shedding tears like a baby.”
The distinctive ruddy color is because they are rich in anthocyanins — colored plant pigments full of antioxidants, explains Michele Pugliese, who owns a restaurant in Tropea. The sweet flavor isn’t due to higher quantities of sugar but to fewer chemical compounds of pyruvic acid and sulfur compounds that normally make onions sharp.
‘Queen of onions’
What makes them great is not just the taste but their versatility in the local cuisine and the many different ways they can be cooked and tasted.
Tropea’s annual Red Onion Festival, held every spring in town, pays tribute to what Italians call the “Queen of Onions” with gourmet stands and cooking demonstrations.
Tropea onions are eaten either raw — plucked straight from the plot — or as an onion salad with other vegetables. Farmers still lunch on red onions while working in the fields.
“I love to eat an onion salad for lunch straight after some pasta, it’s nutritious and refreshing”, says Schiariti.
The onions are equally delicious on bruschetta with extra virgin olive oil, served with beans, or baked or fried into a frittata omelet with potatoes — a typical Easter lunch dish in the area.
“If you don’t prepare a red onion frittata to share with relatives and friends, you’d better not show up — just stay at home”, says Calabro.
The cipolle rosse 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 inlets, shimmering blue waters and powdery beaches.
Red onions hang on the walls of shops and from stands lining the maze-like alleyways. Rows of grand palazzos lead to a church perched on a crag protruding from the town.
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’re eaten at all times of the day in many different ways, and have nearly replaced garlic in the preparation of dishes. There’s even red onion pizza, jams and ice-cream alongside caramelized red onions and red onion cakes.
“They’re so ingrained in us, an icon of our land and cuisine, that we take them for granted, a bit like how Romans are so accustomed to the Colosseum,” says Pugliese, who owns Tropea’s Osteria della Cipolla Rossa, a no-frills tavern with a handful of tables, which is the ‘temple’ of red onion delicacies.
How to tell a fake
Romana Schiariti — the chef, Pugliese’s wife, and a distant relative of Giovanni Schiariti — hails from a farming family and grew up learning to recognize a real Tropea red onion from a fake one grown outside the official production zone by a simple bite.
“She has a trained palate, but it is 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’s red onions are bright pinkish-red — both the outer skin and the inside color-streaked layers. While onion production has expanded across almost half the wider region of Calabria, including in the hills far from the sea, only those in the IGP area are the real deal, particularly, stresses Pugliese, those grown in the “historical 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 mature, elongated purple-red onions. If you happen to eat a fresh red onion in June, that’s likely a fake, he warns.
Once they’re no longer in season, Tropea’s red onions are sun-dried and tied into braids, mainly to use as dressing or toppings during summer and fall when there are no fresh ones around.
How to eat them
Chef Schiariti makes sweet and sour red onion cream, jam, and sells red onion powder-covered artisan ricotta alongside jars of red onions swimming in olive oil and vinegar.
She also uses red onions for a mustard-style puree and for desserts including jam tarts, brioches.
“Depending on the way you eat and cook them, whether they’re raw, roasted, baked or browned, the flavor changes,” says Pugliese.
Schiariti’s succulent signature dishes include spaghettoni (wide spaghetti) with cipollotti, and cipollotti with beans and pears. She also makes red onions stuffed with vegetables and dried fruit, and creative fish and onion combinations.
Meanwhile, Giovanni Schiariti, the grower, uses dried red onion flakes to enhance the flavor of hams and cheeses.
Bread and onions
In the past, local elders even breakfasted on red onions, which were believed to give an energy dose to help face the day. The typical farmer’s meal was pane e cipolle — bread and onions. It was, and still is, such a humble dish that today it is used as a shorthand for a state of poverty.
With time, Tropea’s cuisine has become more sophisticated. Households now add red onions to stockfish, braised veal, and calzone pies with lard. They make them gratin-style, stuff them with tuna fish and add sliced red onions to lamb skewers and on top of whitebait. Red onion omelets are spiced up with chili pepper, potatoes and zucchini.
Calabro says he likes to stick to the simple recipes of his ancestors such as roasted cipollotto cut in half, and salads of tuna fish, red onions and potatoes.
And they’re not just good to eat. The locals’ “onion legacy” includes precious remedies handed down across generations.
In case of a cold, cough or sore throat, locals recommend cutting an onion in half and placing the two pieces at night on the bedside table, close to the nose, to inhale the therapeutic scent while sleeping. This method apparently also helps to combat insomnia.
And if you’re stung by a wasp, rubbing a fresh onion slice over the skin may avoid inflammation and itching.
Why not give both a try?
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