lundi 31 mai 2010
Before we moved to France and we still had our shop in Dorset Johnny Onions was a regular caller to the town to sell his Britanny pink onions. He would arrive in his battered old van filled with his wonderfully fresh farm grown onions all strung together in the traditional plaits. Out of the van he would unload his battered bicyclette, he would don his beret and begin his tour of the town.
When he called into the shop for a cafe we used to have such fun as he would talk to me in his best English and I would talk to him in my best French. He was possibly one of the very last "Johnny Onions" to make the regular crossing with his wares.
I knew that Johnny Onions had been a long tradition but it wasn`t until recently I had the time to do a little research and this is what I found.
Although having declined in number since the 1950s to the point where only a few remained, the Onion Johnny was once very common, and with the renewed interest since the late 1990s by the farmers and the public in small-scale agriculture, their numbers have recently made a small recovery. Dressed in striped shirt and beret, riding a bicycle hung with onions, the Onion Johnny became the stereotypical image of the Frenchman and in the past may have been the only contact that the ordinary British had with France.
Originating from the area around the town of Roscoff known as Bro Rosko, in Brittany, Onion Johnnies are farmers who found a more profitable market in England than at home, and typically bring their harvest across the English Channel in July to store in rented barns, returning home in December or January. They could have sold their products in Paris as well, but the roads and the railways were bad in the 19th century and going to the French capital city was still a long and difficult trip, while crossing the channel was shorter and easier. The trade apparently began in 1828 when the first successful trip was made by one Henri Ollivier. Although journeys are now made by ferry, small sail ships and steamers were previously used, and the crossing could be hazardous. Seventy Johnnies died when the steamer SS Hilda sank at Saint-Malo in 1905.
Next time you slice a French onion will you wonder where it came from?