The famous Bermuda onion, popular the world over, is known for its sweet taste and a flavour so mild some say you can eat them like apples. But how did the onion become synonymous with Bermuda and how did they get here in the first place? Here we explore the history and culture of the Bermuda onion.
How the Bermuda Onion Came To Be
Though the onion has been cultivated in Bermuda since 1616 when Governor Daniel Tucker brought onions to the island on board the ship Edwin, these were not the sweet Bermuda onions that would bring renown to the island. Nontheless, they thrived, and produced an important crop that helped the island’s first settlers survive.
By 1839, fifty acres of the island were dedicated to growing this generic species of onion. At the time, only two ploughs existed in Bermuda and farming had languished in favour of shipbuilding. At the end of the decade, Governor William Reid, in fear of what might happen to Bermuda’s food supply in the event that the island went to war with the US, decided to develop Bermuda’s agricultural sector. During the same period, the first Azorean immigrants came to farm the land. These workers, who would come to make up ten percent of the population, brought with them modern farming techniques and the mild, sweet variety of onion seed, the Tenerife. It was this seed, grown and harvested in our subtropical climate and rich soil that would result in the famously flavourful Bermuda onion.
Then, as now, the seed is set in September, transplanted in December and pulled in March and April.
Minding the Onion Seed
The pearly little onion seeds in their flowering pods were often prey to birds. It was left to enslaved children to “mind the onion seed,” which meant they had to walk between the rows of plants waving away the pests with a palmetto leaf tied to a stick. The phrase was commemorated in Nellie E. Musson’s book about the black experience in Bermuda, Mind the Onion Seed (1979). Musson chose this title in honour of her grandmother who was born into enslavement in 1813 and often protected the onion fields until Emancipation in 1834.
A Force To Be Reckoned With
The barque Pearl, built on White’s Island in 1854 for the Smith-Hutchings family, was a swift and much-admired trading vessel. Manifests show that Pearl carried to New York on June 2, 1855, “the largest cargo of native produce ever shipped from these islands.”
It consisted of 134 barrels and 1,640 baskets of onions along with potatoes, tomatoes and arrowroot. Over 4000 tons of onions were exported in 1875 and, towards the end of the century, the SS Trinidad carried 30,000 boxes of Bermuda onions to the US each week.
The End of an Era
The industry continued to flourish until the First World War when shipping became difficult. After the war, trade further declined due to high import tariffs imposed by the US and because of increased competition from farmers in a town called Bermuda, Texas, where an onion known as Texas 1015 was being cultivated. Similar in shape and mildness, and with a similar growing season, this onion would become the generally accepted “Bermuda” onion.
In 1930, to protect this onion and other farming interests, the US enacted the Smoot-Hawley Protective Tariff on imported produce. In 1920, 109,072 bushels of onions were exported from our shores; in 1930, 10,937, and by 1937, a mere 1,603.
Although Bermuda had once been known as the market garden of New York City, the island’s onion industry was over by the mid-twentieth century.
In a postcard from the 1930s, the Bermuda onion was characterised thusly: “It is the flavour 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…”
The Onion Patch
Since the mid-1800s Bermudians have been affectionately known as “onions.” Consider it fortunate to be nicknamed for such an ancient, useful and universally embraced vegetable. Imagine being a nation of rutabagas or carrots, or being stuck with the British Navy’s lime stigma, or the Irish potato link.
By 1844, Bermuda reportedly grew 332,735 pounds of onions and the island was extensively exporting these onions by sailing ships to foreign markets. Bermudian merchant seamen became known as “onions,” and Bermuda was nicknamed “the onion patch.” In 1970, Hartley Watlington proved that the nickname was thoroughly established. Eager to sail in the Newport-Bermuda Race, he arrived at the dock in Newport just before the start of the race with a large sign that read “Let an Onion Show You the Way to the Onion Patch.” A yachtsman seeing the sign invited him to sail on his boat.
Why Are Bermudians Known as Onions?
By Rick Spurling, president of the St. David’s Historical Society
The parallels are clear: Bermudians are bold and strong, direct and unassuming but also mild and sweet. They come in many colours: white, red, yellow, green. Some have white skin others brown. Most onions are well cultivated but some are wild. They’re great cooked or raw and go well anywhere; in fact, they turn up everywhere. They are superb when pickled. They are as good as an apple any day. An onion-a-day keeps more than the doctor away! They can, and often do make you cry. We are closely related to garlic.
“The onion is the pride and joy of Bermuda. It is her jewel, her gem of gems. In her conversation, her pulpit, her literature, it is her most frequent and eloquent figure.”
Mark Twain, 1877
Recipe for a Bermuda Onion Tart
4 good-sized Bermuda onions, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
8 anchovy fillets
2 ripe tomatoes
½ pound Gruyere cheese
1/2 cup good quality marinated black olives, sliced
9-inch partially baked pastry shell
6 asparagus tips (optional)
Salt and pepper
Sauté onions in olive oil until golden. Cool. Mash anchovy fillets with a fork and combine with Dijon mustard. Spread combination on pastry shell. Add onions and 2/3 of the cheese. Slice tomatoes and arrange in circles on the tart. Season with salt and pepper and add the remainder of the cheese. Top with sliced olives and asparagus tips; drizzle with olive oil. Bake in a preheated 375ºF oven for 30 minutes.
Recipe for Three-Onion Pie
3 tablespoons sweet butter
2–3 Bermuda leeks, washed well and chopped
2–3 Bermuda onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon parsley, minced
2 egg yolks
1 cup light cream
1 cup heavy cream
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and white pepper
½ cup Gruyère or Swiss cheese
1 9-inch pie shell blind-baked
Sauté the leeks and onions in the butter over a very low heat for 20 to 30 minutes until softened and lightly coloured. Add parsley and allow to cool while you continue. Whisk together the egg yolks and both creams in a bowl. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper to preferred taste. Spread the cooled onion-leek mixture evenly around the bottom of the pie shell. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the onions. Pour in the cream-egg mixture up to within a half-inch of the top. Set the pie in the middle of a preheated oven (325ºF) and bake for 45 minutes or until the top is somewhat browned on the edges and the custard firmly set. Cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve warm.