Although they're all members of the lily family, leeks, onions and shallots have their own characteristics that make them more distant cousins rather than siblings.

Records show that the Roman emperor Nero regularly ate leeks because he believed they were good for his vocal chords. He was nicknamed Porrophagus meaning "leek eater". The leek has been the national emblem of Wales since 640AD when, according to legend, the Welsh wore leeks in their hats for identification during a battle with invading Saxons.

Leeks, which look like giant spring onions, have a mild flavour and are the base for many soups and stews.

Shallots are small onion-like bulbs but with a more refined flavour than onions and are also less sulphurous. Shallots are now widely available and recently a new variety has made it onto supermarket shelves. The torpedo-shaped banana shallot is longer than the traditional varieties and perhaps a little milder. Shallots are great in casseroles and slow cookers because, unlike onions, they don't require initial sauteing to rid them of any raw flavour.


Shallots grow in clusters and are joined with a common root end. Some are bulbous and composed of three or more segments under their coppery skin, others slimmer with just two divisions. The shallots used in Asian cooking are generally much smaller than the varieties grown here.

There's hardly a savoury dish that doesn't call for an onion. In ancient times, people believed onions were a symbol of eternity because of the concentric circles that make up the internal structure. This is also the reason onion-shaped towers were popular in Russia and Eastern Europe because it was thought these buildings would stand forever.

Brown-skinned onions are our most popular variety and come on strong. However, recently the market for sweet onions - especially those with white skin and flesh - has grown rapidly.

They are excellent raw in salads. Red onions are also mild, sweet and juicy, great raw or for cooking.