‘What is your favourite food?’ she asked and I replied ‘onions’. We were sitting side by side at a lunch to celebrate the uses of cold-pressed rapeseed oil. I then added ‘lamb’ as if onions weren’t enough. I fell in love with onions as a child when I discovered that they could somehow be absorbed into skin and fingers for hours and hours; the gorgeous brew, smoky and lingering, was useful if you were a thumb-sucker because there it was right under your nose all evening.
The tacky, glorious stew of mince, stolen bay leaves, tomatoes and onions, and then whatever else we had to soak it up with: bread, pasta, more often potatoes. We had an ancient potato masher and I would be given the job of it, which meant that I could add more butter than was strictly necessary. Although it probably wasn’t butter, but Stork, a cheap butter substitute ‘for baking’ or Echo margarine. Anyway, Potatoes, ‘butter’, salt – landslides of mash which were a perfect foil for the mince.
Recently I have come back to onions having ignored them for a long time. There is a lovely recipe for onion jam and it involves stewing the onions very slowly until they are limp and translucent, then taking the lid off and throwing up the heat until all the liquid has evaporated and the onions are caramel in colour and starting to catch. It takes a good couple of hours or so, but you don’t have to do anything. I have been known to eat them like this straight from the pan. You can then add the mush to lots of things.
You can add Marsala to the onions at the beginning but I never have so can’t report back. I know that adding sliced potatoes at the beginning will create the most delicious fondant stew. There is another recipe – one I found in Elizabeth David – which is whole unpeeled onions baked in the oven with absolutely nothing added – no oil or salt, nothing. Because it’s the inside you want. And then you scoop out the innards. Warm with butter, cold with a vinaigrette.
I have a memory of us all sitting in the kitchen round the table in Ottery St. Mary and watching my aunt Jo – on a visit from Australia – delve into a pat of butter (we must have had butter too because this was noticeably firm and sitting independently) with a piece of bread.
The ridges left on the butter, the crust merely a ledge for it, the way she used the bread as an implement. And her talking of the ‘bad vibes’ in the house, which was actually a converted convent that hadn’t saved us, and all the while I watched her creaming off the butter and thinking it ingenious.
We never had a meal of onions, because onions were just part of every meal, taken for granted. I’m fairly certain that it was either mince or ratatouille we would have had that would have required the onions, with the bread and the butter and the mash as accompaniments. I can’t imagine bread so good it would have taken centre stage like that or butter so good it was the reason for the bread.
The walls would have been thick but it was always cold despite having open fires and storage heaters. We had an Aga or a Rayburn, one of those complicated systems that heated the water. We had a cat and we had goats, so from the outside, from here, it looked rustic, idyllic, the kitchen table rough-hewn, food solid and healthy. But there were ‘bad vibes’, which the bread and butter only temporarily ameliorated. It’s important not to be too sentimental about the past. But I do miss the simplicity of that smell and taste, of everyone together, in the simmering silence eating torn off bread. The smell of onions on the hands, as bewitching as oranges in winter.
Ps. I am going to grow onions this year at the allotment. Sets are more reliable than seed, but seed can be sown now under cover and there are many more varieties to choose from: Red Baron, Red Brunswick, Long Red Florence, Setton and Sturon are possibles, and Senshyu Yellow. Shallots: Golden or Red Gourmet or Red Sun. One piece of advice is to sow 8 seeds in a 3 inch pot and do not thin the seedlings. Plant them all out together; as the bulbs grow they push each other apart.