The tearless, less pungent variety made their debut in Waitrose last year attracting international interest and, after doing what they promised, have returned by popular demand to its shelves for the winter season, adding a different zest to festive stuffings.
Good for salads, caramelising, and eating raw, Sunions embody onions’ huge overall versatility.
A maker of most savoury dishes, they are, like their cousin alliums garlic bulbs, and shallots, an affordable vegetable, rich in health properties, that punches far above its weight.
Building on that core, standard viability has taken family business Oldershaw from a plot in Lincolnshire in the 1940s to an enormous operation that grows 13,000 tonnes of onions, shallots, and garlic packs 100,000 tonnes and works with 35 UK growers and more internationally.
Its processing arm supplies ready-prepared veg for retailers and expansion into Norfolk has improved supply chain control.
Now supplying 20 percent of the UK’s retail sector, annual turnover is close to £50 million.
Farming with partners across a spread of 2,000 acres in England’s eastern counties, “our business has always been the market leader in terms of technology and innovation which has kept us in front of the competition and enabled us to deliver value for our growers and customers,” says Robert Oldershaw, one of the group’s six directors.
The epitome of that is its Near infrared onion grader. A hi-tech electronic scanner, it detects internal rot hidden among the layers, a solution that marks a massive advance in efficiency, ensuring veg is delivered to customers in a perfect condition, while tonnes of rejects are productively recycled.
The result of a multi-million-pound investment project, the company was the first to operate this in the UK and recently upgraded to maintain its competitive edge.
Oldershaw explains: “We are now pushing the boundaries again which uses machine learning neural networks to identify quality parameters enabling us to grade selection directly to what a customer specifically wants.
“It’s unique to the UK’s onion industry, significantly reduces food waste through the chain, improves efficiencies, consistency and final product quality.
“Compared to previous mechanical graders, it’s a huge step up but the learning curve has been very steep, demanding specific in-house skills as we learn more about the software and its potential.
“Safe, affordable, high-quality onions, garlic, and shallots are our goal, we’re always looking to improve what appears to be a fairly simple process, but the devil is in the detail.
“Our basic product range has not changed save for the Sunions, however, the shift is starting to happen in how consumers buy. Following our work with Waitrose to remove plastic film packaging, shoppers are purchasing more loose onions, cutting waste all round.”
Rising costs, climate change, and changes to farming support make this an especially uncertain time for agriculture. Oldershaw’s sustainability plans include installing a five-acre solar array.
Sunions, currently grown in Spain to meet the day length and climate conditions required, may also be coming home at some point as the company works on a new UK-friendly variety.
For the business, its team of 300 are its unique selling point. “The culture we’ve built cannot be replicated,” declares Oldershaw.
And where there are onions, puns are not far behind. Commenting on one of its star products, Waitrose onion buyer Paul Bidwell says: “I may be biased, but in my opinion Sunions make a very a-peeling addition to this year’s shopping list. We’re delighted this onion variety is back in our shops.”