Onion cooked in salt water was the chief food of the poorest peoples of central Asia, Asia Minor and the Mediterranean region in days of old. It was also the mainstay of the diet of Egyptian labourers, who built the ancient pyramids in the third millennium B.C.
Having been cultivated for thousands of years, it is a plant whose land of origin remains unknown. The only onion with which we are acquainted is that found in cultivation or growing naturalized in the wild. We do know, however, that it was already cultivated by the Sumerians in 4000 B.C.
The leek is a biennial herb, but is treated as an annual, because in the second year it flowers and dies. It need not be dug up in autumn for, as a rule, it is not damaged by frost and so can be taken fresh from the garden any time of the year. This is a great advantage, for although fresh leek tastes like the mildest of onions, it acquires an unpleasant strong taste when stored.
The onion’s metamorphosis from a vegetable into a seasoning is also apparent in recent years by its being available at shops in dried, finely-sliced form. This is used in the same way as fresh onion and is suitable for frying.
Planting the seedlings in deep holes and earthing-up the plants blanches the leeks. The blanched sections are much more tender than the green parts, which are usually discarded.
There are many varieties of onion, differing from one another in shape and colour. Onions may be grown from seed or from sets. Sets are small bulbs grown from seed during the summer, lifted in autumn and stored for the winter at a temperature of about 23C (73F) and then planted out again in spring. Storage in warm conditions keeps plants from flowering.
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