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Know your onions...

One of the best known stereotypes we have of the Frenchman is the Onion Johnny. This beret-wearing, bicycle-riding, moustachioed onion seller originates from the Roscoff onion sellers that came over to the UK from Brittany, to sell door-to-door.

 

During the economic crisis that preceded the Revolution, Breton farmers started to halk their vegetables across France. Half a century later, in 1828, a Roscoff farmer, Henri Ollivier, chartered a boat, loaded it with onions and with three companions headed for England.

This was the beginning of the French onion trade in Britain. The sellers were nicknamed Johnnies or Onion Johnnies because at that time  Yann, equivalent to John, and Yannick, equivalent to Johnny, were very common first names in Breton.

 

The onion sellers went door-to-door, at first carrying their goods on their shoulders and then, when the bicycle appeared, on bicycles. Often, customers were loyal to the same Johnny from one year to the next.

 

The Johnnys crossed to the south coast of England, of course, but also made the long journey as far as Wales, the north of England and Scotland.

Seasonal emigration increased year on year, as the Bretons struggled to make a living back home. From a thousand around the First World War, their numbers peaked at 1400 in 1929.

The trade declined after the Second World War - there were only 160 Johnnies in 1970, before dying out altogether in the 1980s.


 

The French have of course made this most ubiquitous of vegetables into many delicious classic recipes that deserve a place on any menu.

We found this video of a chef called Yannick, making a Tarte à l'oignon de Roscoff... There's a fair bit of audience participation, which should help your listening skills. To polish up your French cooking vocabulary, read our blog article.

 

The life of the Johnnies was immortalised in music by the group Tonnerre de Brest with their song Les Johnnies, by the group Tri Yann in the song Vivre Johnny, vivre and by the EDF trio (Ewen, Delahaye, Favennec) in their song Onion Johnny. Here's the latter: