Walla Walla Sweet Onions made international headlines last October when a photo of the sweet onions in a wicker basket, posted by a seed company, was deemed too sexy for Facebook. After much lighthearted media coverage, the ad was restored but the Walla Walla Sweet Onions’ real claim to fame is their extraordinary sweetness and crunch.
“Our soils are low in sulfur and that correlates to the onions being sweet,” says Michael Locati, a fourth-generation farmer. He grows his sweet onions along the foothills of the Blue Mountains in southeastern Washington. “More sulfur in the soil means there’s more acid. This low-sulfur soil and the climate around the region make it so that we can have a sweet onion.”
Sarah and Dan McClure are the only producers of organic Walla Walla Sweet Onions and are certified through the Washington Department of Agriculture. Sarah says that the long hot days and cool evenings in the summer are conducive to growing the perfect sweet onion. “The variables of soil and climate come together to make the onions extra sweet and produce a wonderful crunch,” she says.
Only those sweet onions grown in the federally protected growing area of Walla Walla Valley and northeastern Oregon can call themselves Walla Walla Sweet Onions. Currently, about 20 growers cultivate the sweet onions on 500+ acres. In 2007, the Walla Walla Sweet Onion was named the Washington State Vegetable.
A family history
Pete Pieri, a French soldier who came to the Walla Walla Valley around 1900, brought the original sweet onion seed with him from Corsica, Italy. Locati’s great-grandfather worked for Pieri, and the Locati family has raised sweet onions ever since.
“I’m the fourth-generation farmer,” says Locati, emphasizing the importance of maintaining both the family business and the integrity of the sweet onion. “It’s the heirloom variety so there’s no hybridization. We hand select the seed; we hand select the variety,” he says.
While other growers like the Castoldi and Hamada families have also been raising the onions for multiple generations, newer growers have come on the scene to ensure a healthy industry. The Pedroza, Enriquez, Villa, Jimenez and Knowles families have also turned sweet onion growing into a family affair
It’s been over 100 years since the sweet onion arrived in the region and Locati says there haven’t been many changes to how the onions are raised. “Things have changed as far as technology and our packing lines,” he says, “but the actual growing process remains very similar to how it was done back in 1905.”
Although it varies depending on the year, the onions peak in time for them to arrive in stores, farm stands and farmers markets by mid- to late June. They are typically available through August and sometimes even early September.
It’s important to make sure you’re getting the real deal when you go to buy a Walla Walla Sweet Onion. There’s an official logo sticker that confirms the onion is genuine. Although the sticker isn’t on every single onion, McClure says it should be on one out of every four or five, and you can also look for the logo on the bag, the packaging, or supermarket display.
A blushing new member of the family
Although not much has changed in how the Walla Walla Sweet Onion is grown, farmers like Locati are getting creative. The Walla Walla Valley is well-known for its red and rosé wines, which get their unique taste from the characteristics of the region’s soil just like the sweet onions.
“Recently, I’ve developed what I call a Walla Walla Rosé Sweet Onion,” says Locati. “It’s a play off the Walla Walla rosé wines.”
These onions are all hand selected with the growers seeking the redder onions that have a rosy color. Locati says the taste is similar to your standard Walla Walla Sweet Onion. “It’s very sweet and mild and perfect for raw consumption,” he says, noting that it’s great in burgers, salads, and sandwiches just like a regular sweet onion.
“It’s got that nice pink color to it. It’s not fully red and it’s also sweet,” he says.
The best way to eat a sweet onion
Both McClure and Locati recommend eating the onions raw rather than cooking them. Locati explains that because they have a high water content, the water tends to evaporate when the onions are cooked — so they’ll lose some of that signature crunch McClure described.
Walla Walla Sweet Onions are the perfect addition to a sandwich, a salad, or a burger. McClure recommends putting the raw sweet onion on a piece of fresh bread with butter and a dash of salt and pepper.
Chef Chris Ainsworth of Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen and The Weiner and Bun, both in downtown Walla Walla, uses Walla Walla Sweet Onions wherever the dish calls for onions. “It’s the only onion I use whenever they’re available. With improved storage facilities at the farms, I can often get them through November,” says Ainsworth. “We like to support the local farms and Walla Walla Sweet Onions have a good, well-rounded flavor.”
Walla Walla boasts a wide variety of cultural, culinary and recreation opportunities and the Walla Walla Valley is internationally recognized for its wines and winetasting experiences.