A few weeks ago I was invited by the Vidalia Onion Committee to visit the city of the Vidalia for the Vidalia Onion Festival and Farm Tour. The curious foodie in me couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn all about Georgia’s official state vegetable and how it’s grown. So on a sunny Friday afternoon, I left the office early and headed out for my four hour road trip to Vidalia. I knew the weekend was going to be packed full of one of a kind experiences, and I was so excited. Our kick off dinner was held at Elements Bistro & Grill where we served a special tasting menu featuring the deliciously sweet Vidalia onion.
Our taste buds were dazzled as we enjoyed a scrumptious chowder, fresh crisp salad, succulent pork chop and bacon wrapped scallop entree all starring the Vidalia onion in some shape or form. Our individual cheesecake desserts even included a caramelized Vidalia onion topping. Everything tasted over the top amazing, and the conversations around the table of everyone getting to know each other was delightful.
The next morning we woke up bright and early to head out for our farm tour. The McLain family farm was gracious enough to give us a detailed tour of their fields, operations and packing sheds. Onions grown in Vidalia are unique in flavor due to the specific type of soil and climate. Vidalia onions are strictly regulated where they can be grown in the state of Georgia to maintain the integrity of the brand. The onions are harvested in a relatively short season due to the extreme heat of the Georgia sun. The McLain Farm maintains about a 5 week harvest time frame, and aim to be completely done by May 25th.
I found it fascinating that every section of the McLain fields are coded, so every lot of onions that are harvested can be identified by a specific ID code. This allows for tracking of all the onions processed by the farm through the packing shed to ensure food safety. The McLain Farm was the first farm in the eastern area to use and electric camera sizer for sorting.
Once brought into the packing shed, the onions go into a dryer, and this enhances the beautiful golden color of the Vidalia onion. Onions are dried in rotation for about 3.5 days. A single drying room can hold about 690 bins and the equivalent of 828,000 pounds at a time. McLain roates between 3 drying rooms at the peak of the season. to purge all moisture and properly dry the onions for packing. To extend the season a little longer, onions are also held in cold storage at approximately 36 degrees. When the onions are ready to ship, they are rotated through small dryers to remove any condensation so they can be shipped all over the country.
Heading to the fields for some hands on onion info, we learned that onions are started in seed beds, then transplanted by hand into the acres of fields when they are about the size of a pencil. About 75-90,000 onions are transplanted plant per acre in mid November to late December. The unique sandy soil of the Vidalia onion growing region provides better drainage and the crystallization of the sand reflects the sun and helps creates the notable golden color of the outer skin. I enjoyed hearing Commissioner Gary Black talking about the cooperation of the growers to produce the best product possible.
Vidalia onions are specific to be grown in a geographical area by law. The laws and regulations are in place to provide protection for the growers, ensure the brand integrity and traditions unique to the Vidalia onion. There are over 60 years of knowledge behind the growers to make sure the deep blooded passion and family heritage is kept authentic, and translated into a strong confidence that the product will have the best desired shelf life.
After our tour we were treated to freshly fried Vidalia onion rings, and a delicious lunch introducing the brand new Vidalia onion themed menu items for Applebee’s. It was a real pleasure to get to talk and spend time with the head chef of Applebee’s, Michael Slavin and learn in detail about the creation of the new menu items. Celebrating the launch of the new menu with Applebee’s made me feel like a true insider since the menu items weren’t even available to the public at the time.
When our leisurely lunch was over we headed back to the hotel to rest and clean up a bit before hitting the Vidalia Onion Festival. Upon arriving to the fairgrounds we were greeted with the bright lights of the carnival rides music already blaring from the soundstage. The night was epic. I had a fabulous time singing and dancing in front of the stage with great new friends. Hello! Feeling like a rockstar! Having VIP tent access with a bar and private facilities totally made the night one to remember and over the top fun!
I’m so grateful for the invitation from the Vidalia Onion Committee and their wonderful hospitality. I was thrilled to participate in their first blogger farm tour and Vidalia Onion Festival celebration weekend. I’ve made new friends that I will cherish well into the future, plus what better place to stock the trunk of my car with fresh Vidalia onions than from the store right down the street from the farms.
If you are a fan of Vidalia onions, don’t miss checking out the Vidalia Onion Recipe Contest, especially if you have a unique recipe to share. The “V” Culinary Challenge runs through August 4th, so go enter or just get your vote on over on the Vidalia Onions’s Facebook page here.
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