(Ancient Israeli scallion and shallot exports; December 2007)
Like any empire, ancient Rome amassed great wealth from the vast territory that it controlled. The upper classes were able to enjoy the local delicacies of subject lands, and epicures prided themselves on their ability to recognize subtle gradations in the quality of these prized imports.
An extensive sea trade involving thousands of ships carried wine, perfume, spices, and other luxury products from throughout the Mediterranean and beyond to ports that served Rome and other imperial cities. Among these products were several members of the lily family, including scallions and shallots. These close relatives of leeks, onions, and garlic were shipped from the port of Ashkelon, and probably grown nearby. Apparently, these Israeli vegetables were quite popular in Rome, because they were named for their port of origin: caepa Ascalonia (“Ashkelon onion”). This Latin name is the root of the English words ‘scallion’ and ‘shallot.’ Shallots are a luxury even today. Indeed, one popular cookbook refers to them as “rich man’s onions.” Ironically, shallots are most often associated today with French cooking, and scallions with Chinese cuisine. Ashkelon, however, is once again a flourishing seaport, though vegetables are no longer a large part of the cargo handled there.