“There is a charm in making a dish, to the unaccustomed cook, from the excitement of wondering what the result will be, and whether any flavour save that of onions will survive the competition in the mixture.”

Annie Besant 1847 -1933

Although Heinz tinned spaghetti first appeared in 1924, one could be forgiven for thinking that Italian food didn’t take hold in Britain until the early ’60’s. Today, Italy’s egalitarian recipes and simple ingredients provide the most popular cuisine in the UK. Pasta, pizza, balsamic vinegar, Mozzarella, olive oil, risotto, basil, Parmesan, are now all seen as mainstream essentials on supermarket shelves. Their regular importation as commonplace as the world’s endlessly swirling trade winds. But by way of foreign integration it was the Roman Empire’s arrival into Britain and the emperor Hadrian in particular, who alongside undertaking some enthusiastic wall erection (outdoing president Trump by many leagues), first introduced onions to our diet.

The first thing one has to get to grips with on the cooking front is to know and understand the diversity of your onions. Regular onions, be they brown, white or red, do have their fair share of demanding character traits. So robust a flavour, they rarely make a suitable substitute when shallots are summoned to a delicate dish, and like leeks, become wastefully overwhelmed by more vigorous cuisines. However, many global dishes need an onion that establishes an unrestrained stance from the outset, probably the reason why our everyday brown onion is the most common ingredient in almost every cuisine across the world. And it yields to no-other as the indispensable backbone of all European gastronomy.

Below, this season’s drying stash of recently harvested onions – unlike any other, capable of underpinning an almost endless inventory of traditional dishes.

The Allium family has a lineage stretching back thousands of years (first recorded in ancient Egypt) and although the regular brown onion, Allium Cepa, features at the top of the list of aromatic culinary cousins, close family members include shallots, garlic, spring onions, leeks and chives.

But it is the subterranean Alliums alone that have a merciless built-in defence mechanism to protect them from gluttonous moles and relentless mealybugs, secreting Syn Propanethial S-oxide gas whenever their skin is attacked. No, I’d never heard of it either. It is this gas that morphs alarmingly into a dilute form of sulphuric acid when in contact with the water glaze ostensibly tasked to protect your eyes. Sulphuric acid eye wash – is it any wonder we mewl and whimper when we’re slicing?

If the death of Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, or Mufasa’s end in The Lion King brought you to tears, they are as nothing compared with the task of finely slicing the better part of a kilo of regular onions for this traditional French dish a mere half metre away from our precious corneas, although once assembled and calmed by cooking, they manage to turn the tables and segue into unbridled sweetness and joy – not unlike the finale of The Lion King as it happens.

Given the many preventative solutions on offer, I have yet to find an effective method against tear duct flooding. Advice to pop a piece of bread between your teeth has some traction, although it does cut down on conversation in the kitchen and natural breathing generally. It also makes you look like an errant seagull. Donning a pair of goggles or slicing under cold water has shades of marine archeology about it, and on occasions has proved rather dangerous. Freezing the onions in advance, although recommended in some quarters, is likely to provide your fingers with mild frostbite. A very sharp knife blade will reduce the bruising inflicted on the onion skin and lessen the gaseous emissions, but that’s my best offer. Apart from musical distraction perhaps.

By way of diversion, my friend David is aware of my habit of cooking to music and had read my former post on alliums in French Onion Soup. No stranger to metaphor and simile he sent me a CD, Spem in Alium (David’s ostensibly witty riff on spelling) which is a haunting renaissance motet by Thomas Tallis, and translates as Hope in Any Other Have I None. As epithets go it’s rather apposite, and as hope is always tested during blind baking (sorry), I played it when assembling the dish above. But with all its demands this tart will more than reward – the music choice I leave intriguingly to you. Do let me know.

Thyme, onion and Gruyère tart from The Vegetarian Option (2009) by Simon Hopkinson

Serves 4-6
For the pastry:
65g cold butter, cut into cubes
100g plain flour
1-2 tbsp iced water
For the filling:
50g butter
750g brown or white onions, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
200ml double cream
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
60g Gruyère, freshly grated
Freshly grated nutmeg

To make the pastry, briefly process the butter, flour and a pinch of salt in a food processor until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Tip into a large bowl and gently mix in the water with cool hands or a table knife.

Knead the dough lightly, then put into a plastic bag and chill in the fridge for at least an hour before rolling.

For the filling, melt the butter in a wide, shallow pan.

Tip in the onions and very gently sweat over a moderate heat for at least 40 minutes, or as long as an hour, until pale golden and completely soft. Cool.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4, and place a flat baking sheet inside to heat.

Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface as thinly as you dare, then use to line a 20cm tart tin, 3cm deep.

Prick the base with a fork.

Line the pastry case with foil and dried beans, slide on to the hot baking sheet and blind bake for about 15-20 minutes.

Remove the foil and beans and return the pastry case to the oven for a further 10 minutes or so, until it is golden, crisp and well cooked through – particularly the base.

Mix together the egg, egg yolks, cream, mustard and thyme leaves.

Carefully mix in the onions, season and pile the mixture into the pastry case.

Sprinkle the Gruyère over the surface and generously grate over some nutmeg.

Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes, or until the filling is a rich golden colour and just firm to the touch.

Leave to stand for 10 minutes before eating.

Wine thoughts

Beaujolais-Villages and Crus wines (with the exception of the bubblegum scented Nouveau), have a habit of providing bright, juicy flavours that hover just above the palate rather than numbing it with fruit and alcohol. With its tell-tale mixture of spring flowers, soft herbs and delicate fruits: cherries, pomegranates and rhubarb (often resembling a delicate Pinot Noir in later vintages, but less expensive for those in the throes of an economy drive) some of the Beaujolais élite, such as this delicious Morgon, are the result of whole bunch fermentation. This is a vinification technique where intact bunches of Gamay grapes are left uncrushed in the fermentation tanks, but blanketed by carbon dioxide (known as carbonic maceration). In simple terms this causes the grapes to ferment from the inside out, a method that lessens more aggressive flavours and does away with those mouth-puckering tannins.

Quaffable with so many dishes, such as our creamy onion tart, Beaujolais crus are frequently served on the cooler side (not chilled), to very good effect.

You might try some of the other high-end crus: Juliénas, Brouilly, Chiroubles or Fleurie, all from the same region. And as with all unfashionably good wine, you stand to get unfashionably good value.