This is the story of two cities on two continents brought together by a visionary corporate executive and a mutual love of onions.
In December, if all goes according to plan, Walla Walla, Wash., famous for the sweet onion that bears its name, will sign an agreement with Cannara, a small town in central Umbria, to become sister cities. The new sister-city relationship was sparked by the intercession of Antonio Baldaccini, CEO of UmbraGroup, whose subsidiary Umbra Cuscinetti Inc., an aerospace parts company and Boeing supplier, is located north of Seattle.
Walla Walla is a city of nearly 32,000 located in the southeast corner of Washington state. A Native American word meaning “many waters,” Walla Walla is known for its sweet onions and other agricultural products. The city also prides itself on its wineries and gorgeous natural setting. Several nearby colleges, including nationally ranked Whitman College, help the region maintain a lively restaurant and music scene.
Each June, around the time that the onion harvest begins, Walla Walla organizes a sweet onion festival that attracts thousands of visitors. Restaurants compete to outdo each other in how they feature the signature crop and the smell of onions permeates the air. There are onion-eating contests, onion bowling, onion decorating and onion-sack races.
The story of the Walla Walla onion actually began in Corsica, a French-owned island off the western coast of Italy. There, more than a century ago, a French soldier named Peter Pieri brought sweet onion seeds to the Walla Walla valley. It turned out that the plant was perfectly suited to eastern Washington’s terrain and weather.
The onion’s mildness is due to a low sulphur content, about half that of an ordinary onion. Less sulphur means less “bite” and no tears. So sweet you can eat it like an apple, the Walla Walla onion is cultivated by 30 growers on about 1,000 acres surrounding the city.
Similarly, Cannara is the onion capital of Italy; its onions are so revered that a weeklong onion festival (Festa della Cipolla), held each September, attracts about 150,000 visitors. This year, a second festival will be added in December to recognize and celebrate the new sister-city union.
In September, Cannara’s festival included a web conference with Walla Walla and cooking demonstrations that featured the Walla Walla onion, prepared by former Seattle resident and current Umbrian chef Jennifer McIlvaine. McIlvaine is married to Cannara businessman Federico Bibi whose family owns an olive oil and wine business. At the Cannara festival, she prepared sausages with grapes, strawberries and Walla Walla onions, a dish that was well-received by the locals.
The fact that Walla Walla and Cannara were brought together was no accident. The Baldaccini family has been involved in Cannara onions for generations. In 1882, Giulio Baldaccini referred to the Cannara onion as a “special crop” because it required the use of a spade, careful fertilization and land suitable for irrigation.
Antonio Baldaccini grew up in Cannara and lived there until he was 20 years old when he moved to the U.S. to study and work. “When you’re abroad, you want to integrate yourself with the local population,” said Baldaccini, “but you always have a strong feeling for where you came from.”
While on a work assignment at Umbra Cuscinetti in Washington state, Baldaccini was surprised to learn that the Northwest capital of sweet onions was in nearby Walla Walla. He took it upon himself to meet the mayor of Walla Walla and began to plant the seeds of a sister-city friendship with his birth town.
In September 2014, Jim Barrow, a Walla Walla city councilman, traveled to Cannara to meet with Mayor Fabrizio Gareggia. As a first step to creating an official sister-city agreement, the two men signed a pact of friendship and exchanged keys to their cities. Once finalized, the sister-city relationship will open the doors to student and cultural exchanges between the two cities, and enable the exchange of traditions and techniques associated with onion cultivation.
“I am excited about the future possibilities that will develop from our new sister-city relationship,” said Councilman Barrow. “The recent approval by the president of Italy clears the way, allowing our citizens, especially those with Italian-American roots, to experience these cultural and commercial ties. Planned reciprocal visits between our communities over the next year hold the promise of mutual benefit and cultural enrichment.”
Fifty-three cities in Washington state are paired with 127 sister cities worldwide, but until this month only one of those cities was located in Italy. (Perugia and Seattle have been sister cities for more than 23 years.) Soon Washington state will welcome its second Italian sister city. It is sure to be the start of a long and fruitful relationship.