Zebrune Shallot: Quintessentially French

Shallots are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables, with a history that can be traced back at least 5,000 years. And though they originated in central Asia, where wild onions and shallots can still be found, they’re often thought of as quintessentially French.

Shallots were long believed to be a distinct species from bulb onions, but in the 1950s, they were reclassified into the Allium cepa family — same as onions.

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Shallots spread southeast into Asia and India, and southwest towards the Mediterranean basin via Palestine and Egypt. The Greeks carried shallots further west from the Canaanite port city of Ashkalon (in today’s Israel), but it was Crusaders — religious warriors — who brought them to western Europe from the Middle East in the 11th century. The “onion from Ashkalon” became “escalogne” in Old French, and eventually “echalote” — or, in English, “shallot.” 

In his 1822 book, The History of Cultivated Vegetables, Henry Phillips dates the shallot’s arrival in England to 1548. Onions and shallots got to the Americas by way of Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in the early 1490s, but shallots never really took hold in North American gardens.

Not so in France. Beginning in the 19th century, vegetable breeders developed a number of regional strains, including the famous red shallot (Allium cepa var. aggregatum); the Griselle, or Gray Shallot, a distinct species known as Allium oschaninii, and considered the “true shallot” in southern France; and the Cuisse de Poulet, or chicken thigh, type with its single, torpedo-shaped bulbs. In France, this type is referred to as “echalion,” which is a combination of the words “echalote” and “onion.”

Many French refugees fleeing Nazi occupation carried seeds with them, including those from the Lorraine region.

The Zebrune shallot is a Cuisse de Poulet type from the Poitou region in western France, and its origin can be traced back to World War II, when French families from the Lorraine region, bordering Germany, fled Nazi occupation beginning in 1940, in the early part of the war. Many of the refugee families carried heirloom seeds with them. 

One such family settled in the small town of Lecloître, in Poitou. Their family’s heirloom shallot grew beautifully in the sandy limestone soil of their new home. They shared seeds with neighbors, and it quickly became a favorite in nearby home gardens. Professional growers took notice of it in the early 1960s, but it remained a hyperlocal variety for the next 30 years, until a growers’ cooperative began producing it on a large scale. In 1992, it was granted the official and protected appellation of “Cuisse de Poulet du Poitou.” 

But to be grown outside the region, it needed a different name. Compared to other shallots, Zebrune tastes more like onions. When harvested at full size, its white flesh with hues of pink has a refined and sweeter flavor, but smaller bulbs can be a bit pungent. It stores extremely well. Shallots are famous for their role in French cuisine, but they do have some other, lesser-known uses: the juice is used in insect repellent sprays and rust preventatives; it is also used as a cosmetic to fade freckles. And they’re so good for you — packed with antioxidants, minerals and vitamins!

Find Zebrune shallot seeds here.