Shallot, also known as scallion, is a bulbous vegetable with characteristics similar to garlic and onion. Unlike these two vegetables, however, its taste is delicate and, therefore, it has greater versatility in cooking. It is a species native to Central Asia, first spread in India and then in the Mediterranean, in ancient times. The Greeks and Romans used it in cooking and also attributed aphrodisiac properties to it. A variety with very particular properties is the Romagna shallot, which has been granted Protected Geographical Indication.
In general, this plant is very easy to cultivate and can bring great satisfaction in a home garden. Let’s learn more about its characteristics and how to cultivate it correctly and organically in our garden.
Botanical Background and Origin of the Name
The shallot (Allium ascalonicum) is a plant that belongs to the botanical family Liliaceae. This same family also includes garlic, onion, and leeks. The origin of the scientific name is Middle Eastern; Ascalon (Ashkelon) is, in fact, a city in present-day Israel, located just north of the Gaza Strip. From this port city, which was the stage for the Battle of Ascalon, shallots were brought here to us in the 12th century by the crusaders. Since then, this vegetable began to spread in the traditional cuisine of half of Europe, even though, as mentioned, it was already known to the Greeks and Romans.
Characteristics of the Shallot Plant
Shallot is a perennial bulbous vegetable, but it is cultivated in gardens on an annual cycle. The above-ground part consists of upright, hollow, and cylindrical leaves, similar to those of an onion but more numerous. The young leaves are edible and have an aromatic flavor, used to enhance the taste of salads. The plant can reach a height of up to 30 cm. The underground part is made up of round, elongated, and tunicked bulbs, i.e., wrapped at the base by a common sheath. In this way, it resembles garlic more, as in onions, the bulb is single. However, unlike garlic, shallots generally have two or three bulbs. Together, the bulbs have a limited diameter, up to 3-4 cm at most. The individual bulbils are small and elongated, with some differences depending on the variety. Reproduction occurs vegetatively, through the burying of the bulbil, just like with garlic.
There are several varieties of shallots that can be grown in a home garden. Below, we will see the most common ones:
- Dutch Jersey or scallion onion. This variety is very early, with reduced vegetative vigor, but rather large spherical bulbs. The outer bracts (the sheath) are reddish or yellowish. The taste is very delicate.
- Common shallot. This variety is very hardy and productive, with late maturation and easy winter storage. The bulbs are elongated, with violet outer bracts, and have a pungent and aromatic taste.
- Romagna IGP Shallot. This variety has been granted Protected Geographical Indication according to Reg. CE No. 2325/97. The production area established in the PGI regulations extends to numerous municipalities between Ravenna, Bologna, and Forlì. Romagna shallots are characterized by long and slender leaves. They have a rather twisted flask-shaped bulb, well-developed root system, dark golden sheaths, pinkish-lilac flesh, and a slightly spicy taste.
How to Grow Shallots
Climate and Period
Being a hardy plant, shallots can be grown at any latitude, from plains to mountains. The key is to choose a sunny area of the soil. The best time to start growing shallots is in the autumn months of October, November, and December. Alternatively, you can start them at the end of winter, in February and March.
Soil and Fertilization
Shallots do not have specific soil requirements; it’s important that the soil drains well and does not lead to water stagnation. A medium-textured soil is perfect. When it comes to fertilization, it’s advisable not to overdo it. The bulb, in fact, can suffer from excessive organic matter. Therefore, using animal manure before planting the bulbs is not recommended. Instead, prefer a light fertilization, with home compost or worm castings (you can find the latter here).
Planting Shallot Bulbs
Shallots are grown by planting their bulbs. Each individual bulb should be buried at a depth of about 10 cm, maintaining a distance of 20 cm between each bulb. The distance between rows should be 30-40 cm. For detailed planting instructions, you can take a look at this article dedicated to seed sowing techniques.
Irrigation and Mulching
Since shallots are usually grown between autumn and spring, they generally do not need artificial irrigation. Normal precipitation is sufficient to ensure lush growth. What is necessary, however, is to keep the plant free from weeds, especially in spring during the period of bulb enlargement. For this purpose, you can periodically weed around the plant. If you want to avoid this work, you can use the technique of natural mulching with straw. The mulching should be applied among the plants in spring, when the first shoots emerge from the soil.
Shallots are usually harvested in early summer, between June and July, as soon as the leaves begin to turn yellow. The bulbs are pulled from the soil, using a fork or spade, dried in the sun, and then stored for a few months in a dark, cool, and dry place.
Shallots are hardy plants that do not suffer from particular problems related to pests and diseases. However, cultivation conditions can negatively influence this aspect. For instance, excessive water stagnation can lead to the presence of rot, which can damage the underground bulbs. The above-ground part, in conditions of excessive moisture and poor ventilation, can be attacked by powdery mildew in the spring. To defend the plant against this disease, you can use a solution of water and baking soda. If your soil is tired, be aware of the presence of bulb and stem nematodes. If your soil is infested with these parasites, we advise against cultivating shallots.
Shallot in the Kitchen
Unlike its cousins garlic and onion, shallots have a much milder flavor and do not cause bad breath. Another curiosity is that cleaning shallots does not make your eyes tear, so there is no need to cut them underwater. For these reasons, chefs who enjoy refined preparations suitable for delicate palates highly seek it. The bulb can be consumed raw as is or used for making a sauté. In the latter case, its flavor acquires bitter notes.