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The Flat Cap on ... Onions

This morning The Flat Cap was in his local greengrocer's when he overheard two elderly ladies chatting next to the turnips. During their conversation the plumper of the two ladies remarked that, "when it comes to foreign policy that Boris Johnson knows his onions". This understandably got The Flat Cap a bit hot under the collar and notwithstanding the irony of the situation he was about to argue the point when his mind wandered and he began to think of onions in general. It was whilst he was looking at the varieties of onions on offer that the old lady paid for her fruit and vegetables and exited the shop. Having been denied a good argument, and one he was confident he could have won, The Flat Cap resolved to find out a little bit more about onions and why they are so popular.

Most onion varieties can be categorised into either red or brown, although there are some onions that are white; usually spring onions. Spring onions come into season in the Spring, hence their name. Having said that The Flat Cap has noticed you can buy spring onions pretty much any time of the year. This could be due to boffins genetically modifying them, or it might simply be that there's now ways to grow most plants all year round. So long as you have the right type of greenhouse and lighting, heating and watering you can trick the plants into thinking it's Springtime when really it isn't. That's what food scientists do when they get bored and it helps to maintain food supplies and keep prices down. It's only when the weather is really bad that crops fail and then you have to pay more or rely on tinned vegetables. In some countries crop failures are a lot more serious and people can end up starving. That's why we have charities and fund raising events like Comic Relief. It's also why politicians like Boris Johnson need to pull their finger out.

As well as red, brown and white onions there are also green onions. These look a bit like spring onions but they aren't the same. Just to confuse matters there are also shallots. These look like a bit like spring onions too, but they're brown at the bulb end and look more like little onions, only elongated. Obviously knowing your onions is crucial if you're a chef at a top restaurant, or even if you're a contestant on TV programme Masterchef . Television chefs can be quite harsh and anyone who has been the subject of Gordon Ramsay's acerbic wit wouldn't want to make a wrong onion choice in front of the cameras. As well as all the above varieties some people use the word "scallion" when referring to green and spring onions. Scallions are quite similar but they have a milder taste. Pickled onions are just small onions that you get in a jar of vinegar, although there's probably one or two other spices and preservatives thrown in to stop them going off. No ploughman's lunch would be complete without a decent pickled onion. Another variety of pickled onion is the silverskin onion, so named because of their white skin. You're more likely to find a silverskin onion on a cocktail stick rather than making its appearance on a ploughman's lunch.

Having completed his fruit and vegetable shopping The Flat Cap got chatting to Neville who owned the greengrocer's. Neville literally knew his onions and in conversation shared the following facts:

  • The reason onions can you make you cry is because when they are cut they release a chemical called 'syn-propanethial-S-oxide'. The chemical then stimulates the eyes' lachrymal glands which in turn release tears.

  • There are a couple of theories as to the origin of the phrase "know your onions". One suggests it derives from the English lexicographer C.T. Onions who throughout his long and distinguished career edited the Oxford English Dictionary. Because he knew so much about etymology and wrote many reference books the phrase comes from him. Another theory argues the origin is down to Englishman S.G. Onions who created sets of coins for Victorian children to learn their pounds, shillings and pence. Or it could be that it wasn't even him who coined the phrase. Neville the greengrocer concluded by saying that nobody really knows where the phrase originated

  • 'The Lady of Shalott' is a poem written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and makes no mention of onions

  • People in Libya consume more onions per head of population than any other nationality

  • Proving that an army does fight on its stomach, during the American Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant sent a telegram to the War Department which read, "I will not move my army without onions." Hostilities recommenced the next day, but only after the onions had arrived. To get rid of his onion breath Grant would eat parsley or suck strong mints

  • The official vegetable of Utah is the Spanish Sweet Onion

  • A 'rapscallion' is the name for a rascal or ne'er do well and has nothing to do with either rap music or onions

  • In 2012 retired chartered surveyor Peter Glazebrook from Newark grew the world's biggest onion. It weighed more than 18 pounds. In his time the keen gardener has also grown the world's longest parsnip

  • According to legend you can gauge the weather by the thickness of onion skins. Thin skins indicate a mild winter is on its way, thicker skins point to a cold winter

  • Onions were first grown in Asia, as far back as 3,500 BC

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