Years ago when I first visited Tropea with my father I could not have anticipated my dad's reaction as we approached this gem of a town along the southern Tyrrhenian coast of Calabria!
It was to be a little sightseeing detour for me, from Filadelfia, where we had come for a brief visit to family friends. I couldn’t understand then my dad’s insistence and consequent excitement at travelling to Tropea. Was it a place of special meaning for him? Perhaps, a signorina from his past had lived here? Had that been the case, I would have understood the agitated excitement that my father was wont to exhibit when something monumental was about to happen.
Approaching the promontory upon which sit Tropea and Capo Vaticano, I was struck by the vivid shades of cerulean blue and deep red-purple that with bold brush strokes painted the landscape. It was an impression that has stayed with me all these years. The town, with the sea and sky as its background, was decorated with splashes of a distict colour which was neither red nor blue, but rather a hue particular to the onions, that tightly braided, hung from balconies, doorways, and the window ledges of the town. A pungently sweet odor hung in the air, and my dad, with eyes twinkling with a child’s remembrances announced that it was once said that the effluvium typical of the Cipolle Rosse di Tropea, could resuscitate the dead.
I thought I understood then, seeing his mouth on the brink of watering, and knowing his almost gluttonous inclination for particular foods, that my father had come for the onions! And indeed he had.
Tropea’s celebrated onions are not a new crop in Calabria’s horticultural history, but in fact, date back thousands of years to the ancient Phoenicians. Today, the town’s women still skillfully weave with an intricate and deft movement of the hands the leaves of the onions into braids that are then hung to dry.
Only second in fame to the sandy white beaches, the onions of Tropea, believe it or not, draw a significant number of visitors to this town. Widely recognized in the culinary field, this vegetable grown in the area surrounding, and including, Tropea, is a sweet version of the common bulb onion. Its particular luscious and honeyed flavor is a result of the microclimate of the region where it is grown: a stable winter, with no sudden changes in temperature; the mild air from the sea; and a fresh and loamy soil all contribute to the singular characteristics of this sought after vegetable. It is almost always present in the cuisine of the south for its flavor and its significant nutritive properties.
A mouthful of cipolle caramellate told me that my father had returned to his childhood; how easily flavours and smells can trigger past memories and take us back to those moments that have dissipated in time. How wonderful, that afternoon ----despite our odiferous breath ----to have tasted one of the many varied and unique flavours of Calabria.
Unless you visit Calabria, it will be almost impossible to find these sweet succulent onions here in Canada. But, you can still try these recipes with small, sweet red onions from your grocery store. Worth a try.
Cipolle rosse di Tropea 1 Kg sweet red onions
Zucchero semolato 70 g granulated sugar
Zucchero di canna 150 gr brown sugar
Acqua 250 g water
Per preparare le cipolle di Tropea caramellate iniziate a sbucciare le cipolle: meglio utilizzare dei guanti durante questa operazione perchè le cipolle di Tropea macchiano e lasciano odore sulle mani
To prepare, first peel the onions : use gloves when you do this because tred onions tend to stain and leave an odour on your hands
(1) Affettate le cipolle non troppo finemente
Cut the onions in rough slices
(2) e ponetele in una pentola capiente
Place in a generous-sized pot
(3) Unite lo zucchero semolato
Add granulated sugar,
(4) e mescolate, lo zucchero di canna
mix and add brown sugar
(5) e infine l'acqua
(6). Mescolate in modo che gli zuccheri aderiscano bene alle cipolle,
coprite con un coperchio
Mix so that the onions are well coated with the sugar
(7) e accendete il fuoco: le cipolle di Tropea dovranno cuocere per circa 2 ore e mezza a fuoco bassissimo. Di tanto in tanto mescolate delicatamente con un cucchiaio di legno, facendo attenzione a non romperle
cook over low heat; the red onions have to cook for about 2 ½ hours. Occasionally stir gently with a wooden spoon , being careful not to break them.
(8) A fine cottura, otterrete un composto dal colore molto scuro
Once cooked, the onions will be of a dark colour
(9) Le vostre cipolle di Tropea caramellate sono pronte: servitele da sole in una coppetta oppure vicino ad un secondo piatto.