Of the 37 varieties of onions cultivated in Ukraine, only one is sweet – the Yalta onion. The bulbs of the Yalta onion are of medium-sized with a flattened round shape and papery skin in shades of crimson or crimson-purple. The average diameter of the bulb is 7.3 cm, and average weight is 154 g. The inner layers are unusually thick (more than 5 mm), and never in more than seven in a true Yalta onion. The flesh of the onion is white or slightly pinkish. It takes 138-150 days to harvest the onion from seed. The onions are sweet with a slight spicy flavor. The yield using a direct seeding method is about 200 kg per hectare, but drops to 100 kg per hectare for onions planted directly in the soil. The secret of the sweet juicy taste of the onion is in the local soil. It is poor in humus and is natural slate (so called Tauride shale). The top layer is very hot as the slopes of the growing areas face the sun. The growing bulbs cannot root deeply in the soil, and so only the very bottom of the bulb sits in the ground. The onion’s specific unusual color is actually due to protective coloration. The Yalta onion has to be watered regularly with spring water to gain its juicy quality. The onion is fertilized mainly with chicken manure, as it needs potassium, calcium and other mineral substances. Without the warm soil and south-facing slopes, Yalta onions are sharp and bitter. The onions are harvested in late July and August, and only keep for three to five months. Yalta onions are so sweet that they can be eaten fresh, and they are often used this way in salads. The bulbs can also be baked or fried on the grill. There are several versions about how and when the sweet onion appeared in the Crimea: Roman botanist Theophrastus described the unique taste of a sweet onion grown on the territory of modern Crimea, or the Yalta onion could also be a 19th century cross of two foreign varieties of Madeira and Portugal. However, Scientists believe that the sweet Yalta onion is the fruit of national selection, made by local people through numerous experiments with local onions. The Yalta onion is the symbol of the southern part of the Crimea; almost every tourist brings back home a braid or two of this local delicacy. The Yalta onion is currently grown in few villages with the right kind of soil on the Southern coast of the Crimea: Opolznevoye, west of Yalta; Zaprudnoye, between Yalta and Alushta; and Pushkino e Malyy Mayak, near Alushta. Onions are produced by the private sector and can be bought at roadside stands and at the farmers’ markets in Yalta and Alushta. Unfortunately, many young people do not want it to grow Yalta onions because it’s hard work. It faces competition from varieties of sweet salad onion of foreign selection, or others similar in color and shape, but with a bitter taste, grown outside the traditional area. The forecasts of Crimean agrarians are disappointing – the Yalta variety is rapidly mixed with hybrid varieties, and in a few decades we risk losing this Ukrainian delicacy.
Image: © Marco del Comune & Oliver Migliore