Why Bermuda onion means a lot to Bermudians
Do you know that Bermudians actually take pride to be hailed as 'Onions' and Bermuda itself is often referred as the 'Onion Patch'? It has a long history dating back to the days when the first settlers came to Bermuda from England and introduced onions in the island in 1616. The seeds of those onions were brought in from Canary Islands.
The Bermuda onions are flat topped, sweet and succulent with white or yellowish skin. It is best harvested during spring and requires 8 hours of sun everyday. From seeding to harvesting, it would take around 30 days to produce the onion and around 95 days for fully matured ones.
Rise to the fame
Over time, many farmers in Bermuda turned to onion harvesting and it gradually became a staple crop in the island. By 1800s Bermuda onions started to become popular in England and USA as well. In 1847, a first ship load of onions were exported to the US east coast from St. George's Port, Bermuda. Although the captain of the ship may not have understood the implication of this sail, it actually started the first real trade relationship between Bermuda and the US, and therefore was considered as a significant and historical event.
Within few years the island started to get into onion export heavily and that became the major business in Bermuda surpassing even ship building which then was the primary business. Hundreds of farmers turned to onion harvesting realizing the market potential in the US and all over the world. With its huge and growing popularity, by 1850s the Bermudians became known as Onions and Bermuda as the Onion Patch.
By the end of 19th century, the weekly trip by the ship SS Trinidad was carrying more than 30,000 boxes full of onions to the US to cater to the demands of American vegetable importers. There were times when over 4,000 tons of onions were shipped to the US. The onion export from Bermuda continued for decades thereafter until the First World War when shipping almost came to a halt and thereby badly impacting the export of onions.
Following World War-I, although the onion export from Bermuda started again, the US imposed higher import duties slowing it down considerably. More over, by then a farmer community in Texas imported onion seeds from Canary Islands and started producing their own onions. They even named those 'Bermuda Onions' to achieve easy export and sale in domestic market. From 1,000 railway carloads in 1907, the Texas community achieved to ship around 7,000 railway carloads of onions out of Texas. A farming community in Texas even called itself Bermuda Colony and later Bermuda, Texas.
By 1920, they almost shut out the supply of onions from Bermuda. The Texas farmers had the advantage of using North America's new railway system to move and export their locally grown onions in bulk quantities. Bermuda being isolated on the North Atlantic, had to depend on shipping across the ocean which was a far slower mode of transport. As a result Bermuda exports dropped from 153,000 crates in 1914 to a mere 21,570 crates in 1923.
In the 1930s, Bermuda Trade Development Board tried desperately to curb the trend by sending postcards to their overseas buyers that stated the following:
"It is the flavor of a genuine ‘Bermuda’ that is so different. Maybe it is the Sunshine and Sea Breezes down in beautiful Bermuda or some magic in the soil that is responsible, but whatever it is the flavor tells the difference immediately. Be careful then to always look for the crate... See that it is marked ‘from Bermuda Islands’ and you’ll know you are getting the real thing."
But it was a futile exercise. Slowly the era of the farmers exporting onions out of Bermuda came to an end. However the Bermudians still hold themselves proudly whenever they are called 'Onions'.
The present state of Bermuda Onions
Well, onion business never took off in the island subsequently. In fact due to its low yields compared to other types like Grano, the producers in the US and elsewhere too gradually became reluctant in growing Bermuda onions. The Texas community later imported Grano type seeds from Spain and started developing those onions in 1933. Consequently, Bermuda onions disappeared from the US market by 1946 and are no longer sold in the stores (both in Bermuda or elsewhere).
But its proud heritage is still celebrated today in Bermuda. The seeds are retained so that it can be cultivated by the gardeners. Every year during spring, you can find these sweet and juicy onions at the various market stalls put up by the local farmers. There are several restaurants in the island who would prepare dishes such as onion soup and Bermuda fish chowders using Bermuda onions.
Some of the restaurants have even paid homage to the onions having made them part of their names... here are two of such popular ones, The Frog and Onion Pub
at Royal Naval Dockyard, and Pickled Onion
on Front Street at Hamilton City.
Every year there is one day in the month of May which is kept aside to celebrate the heritage of Bermuda Onions in the island. The event is known as Bermuda Onion Day
and it is held at the grounds of Carter House
in St. Davids... other than large display of onions, there are also onion competitions such as the biggest Bermuda onion and who can eat most onions. There are large varieties of dishes that are prepared by the locals out of Bermuda Onions which you can sample. Entry is free for all.
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