If there was an award for the person least likely to be "in fashion", I would get it, so I'm always chuffed when I accidentally hit the jackpot. Last month it was with my hand-knitted socks (I hadn't even realised sock-knitting was in vogue as I've always done it purely for reasons of comfort and thrift). Now, wonder of wonders, I've hit the jackpot again – this time with a vegetable!
Yes, it seems that vegetables, too, have their moment in the limelight. A while ago it was gooseberries, then rhubarb, and now shallots have taken centre stage. Every recipe you look at begins with "take a shallot" (or "scallion" as the Americans like to call them), and I couldn't be more pleased. The shallot is queen of alliums. It holds complex flavours which enhance rather than dominate a dish, making ordinary old onions seem like coarse cousins in comparison. And they are also beautiful. With a string of shallots in the house, you'll feel as though you're walking through a French market every time you brush by them.
I've always been "The Lady of Shallots", growing these gems in favour of regular onions for good reason. While onion seed is bravely struggling through the sodden spring soil, doing battle with springtails, slugs, birds, and weeds, the solid shallot bulb, planted in the ground any time from June onwards (delay three or four weeks in colder districts) is already sending up cheerful green shoots, some of which can be snipped and used in salads as you would spring onions. In cold climates or in an unexpectedly cool summer, shallots will keep on keeping on while regular onions will sulk, develop thick necks, and refuse to bulb-up.
With shallots, you can also forget the back-breaking hassle of sowing fine onion seed into drills, then thinning, and planting out the seedlings. Simply push a third of the shallot bulbs into the ground, allowing a side-plate sized space around each for growth, and toss some mulch around to suppress weed growth. If heavy frosts arrive, the worst they can do is to heave the bulbs out of the ground a little, in which case you press them back in. In soil that has had a sprinkling of lime worked into it, and dose of compost and a little animal manure, the shallots will happily multiply and grow through the summer months. All they ask is that you keep them moist until the end of the season, at which stage their tops will begin to dry off, signalling harvest time.
So why isn't everyone growing shallots? Perhaps it's because the bulbs are slightly smaller than regular onions, necessitating a little more peeling and prep in the kitchen. More likely, I feel, it's because these Mediterranean delicacies have not always been available in regular supermarkets. However, now that shallots are in fashion, sourcing them shouldn't be too difficult. When you do find them, forget the pot, and sow the lot!
Best way to eat a shallot?
Rub the smaller ones, unpeeled, in olive oil, bake whole until thoroughly soft. Cool a little, then pop them out of their skins and straight into your mouth as you would with roast garlic – yum!