Parisian Onions

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Paris Silverskin onions

As we have discussed in my previous post, the food in Paris is amazing. This is the second part in a series I am doing on Paris produce and today I would like to focus on onions. All onions originated in Asia and have been differentiated into over 50 different species. The Paris Silverskin Onion (Allium cepa) is a French heirloom that produces those wonderful small pure white onions needed for the classic dish Coq Au Vin. Sometimes called a “pearl” or “cocktail” onion they are actually a different species. Paris Silverskin is somewhat larger and is a beautiful onion, it also serves well in salads and pickling. Every produce market in Paris has these on display and they remind me of scallions on steroids. When they are as fresh as those shown above, the entire plant is edible, both white bulb and green stems.

Pearl onions

True pearl onions are classified as Allium ampeloprasum (in French petit poireau antillais) because they form just one storage leaf. The wild plant is commonly known as (Broadleaf) Wild Leek. Its native range is S. Europe to W. Asia, and seems to have been introduced to Britain by prehistoric people, where its habitat consists of rocky places near the coast in south-west England and Wales. It has been differentiated into at least three cultivated vegetables, namely leek, elephant garlic and kurrat (Egyptian leeks, grown for their leaves which are used in salads). Today the true pearl onion is rarely commercially cultivated, instead the majority of onions grown for pickling are common onions (A. cepa) as seen in the photo above. They are grown to a small size suitable for pickling by planting at a high density. These are not as sweet as the true pearl onion. Surprisingly, the true pearl onion has found it’s place in modern Europe as a beautiful flowering plant highly prized in Israel as a cut flower.

Elephant garlic

Elephant garlic, as seen to the right, is probably more closely related to the leek than to ordinary garlic. The bulbs are very large and can weigh over a pound. A single clove of elephant garlic can be as large as a whole bulb of ordinary garlic. Although most people assume elephant garlic is stronger than regular garlic because of it’s size, just the opposite is true, it has a very mild taste of garlic.

Allium ampeloprasum sensu lato is a wide complex of wild ecotypes and cultivated plants. More or less bulbous leek was well known and cultivated by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

Allium is one of the most ancient of man’s herbs. The oldest recorded literature from the Summarians is dated at 2600-2100 BCE. It was part of the staple diet of the Egyptian pyramid builders. Several cloves of garlic were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (c.1370-52 BCE).

Garlic was also mentioned in the Bible, during the time of the exodus (Numbers 11:5-6 (c. 550-400 BCE)), and in the Talmud. Its historical or traditional use (may or may not be supported by scientific studies) has been mentioned by Hippocrates, Galen, Pliny the Elder, and Dioscorides for many conditions, including parasites, respiratory problems, poor digestion, and low energy.



Leeks (in French poireau) can be found in every supermarket and produce store in Paris. Leek cultivation dates back hundreds of years to southern Europe. The Romans
were responsible for the spread of leeks throughout Europe and into the British Isles. They are often associated with early Christian sites and were cultivated by the
monks as a substitute for garlic. Chaucer’s pilgrims dined on leek soup. The Welsh wore leeks in their hats to distinguish them from their enemy in a 640 AD Briton vs.
Saxon battle. Since then, patriotic Welsh-men have worn leeks on St. David’s Day in memory of the victory and in honor of Wales’s patron saint. Today the leeexcellent substitute for onions and has a milder taste.


Langue French red shallots

Shallots are essentially another Middle Eastern/Eurasian cultivated variety of the group of onions that form clumps of bulbs from a single planted bulb (hence the name “aggregatum”). They are the pinkish-red fleshed shallots familiar to cooks, which are often sold as “French Red Shallots”–in France, the ones pictured above (from southern france) would be classified as “longue” (oddly enough, that means long) shallots. Originating in Turkestan more than 2000 years ago, the shallot was considered a sacred plant by the Persians and Egyptians. It takes its name from the city of Ascalon in the land of the Philistines (now Ashkelon in Israel), where it was grown in ancient times. Shallots were popularized in France by the Emperor Charlemagne, circa 800 CE, through his list of preferred plants named Capitulare de Villis Imperialibis.

There are also more bulbous French red shallots as pictured above and seen in American groceries. The taste is about the same.

Grey Griselle shallot


The exception to this description is the separate species Allium oschaninii, or grey Griselle which is also grown as a culinary onion mostly in southern France and is sometimes referred to as the “true” shallot, when there is in fact no such single plant. Both red and gray shallots can be called and labeled “echalotte traditionnelle” in France and the European Union, as long as they are grown using traditional methods (i.e., are vegetatively propagated and are planted and harvested by hand), and have the characteristic asymmetrical shape and small size.


Ciboule onions

“Ciboule” is the common French name for a type of onion that is formally known as “Allium fistulosum”. Allium fistulosum onions are non-bulbing perennial plants that propagate in clumps and have distinctive round fragile leaves. Ciboule onions are prized in France and Asia but they are not grown commercially in the United States. Ciboule onions are notable for their subtle onion flavor and the absence of the heat found in bulbed onions. They are often called “spring” onions” and are best eaten in the spring although they are good any time of year. They are similar to American scallions or green onions since they also have no bulb.

Perhaps the most famous gastronomic story about Ciboule comes from The Passionate Epicure by Marcel Rouff. His fictional gourmand Dodin-Bouffant was wild about Ciboule. In the real world few things can compare with fresh Ciboule slow cooked in butter and served against a delicate white fish with herbs.

Well, that is about all I have on Parisian onions, hoped you enjoyed.

Some good links on onions are:

Vegetables of Interest by Medwyn Williams

My daily painting for a beautiful painting of shallots

The onion guide on Saveur

Know your vegetables