Roscoff and its johnnies: when onions crossed the Channel

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The onions - ©Thesupermat / CC-BY-SA The onions - ©Thesupermat / CC-BY-SA

What’s this?

The onion from Roscoff (Brittany, Western France)? It has a lovely pinkish colour inside and outside, and a mellow and sweet taste.

The little history

Story of onions

Aaah, onion… French people cultivated it since a long time! In the Middle Ages, they ate lots of onions. We found the onions from Corbeil, mentioned since the 13th century. But we also found in France the yellow onion from Mulhouse, the onion from Cambrai, the pale one from Niort, the blond one from Aubervilliers…

What about Brittany? Here, they cultivated the onion since the 17th century in Roscoff and the area. The French author Alexandre Dumas came in Roscoff in 1869, when he started to write his Grand dictionnaire de cuisine (″Cooking dictionary″), published in 1872.

He drew his inspiration from the sea, the spume… and the onions! He wrote about the ″johnnies″, who sent 30 or 40 boats full of onions in England… Hey! What about those johnnies?

The Johnnies, Brittany... and England

Here, people called johnnies ″Little John″, ar Johnniged in Breton: they were traveling onions merchants in Roscoff, who went in England to sell their goods. Yes, English loved Breton onions since a long time!

But a man named Henry Ollivier decided to go on the spot, in England, to sell onions. We were in 1828. François Ménez explains in his book Promenades en Cornouaille, en Léon, en Trégor that a ″master″ recruiting about 12 johnnies (they started as cabin boys at the age of 12) in Finistère, before embarking in a schooner and go in Cornwall or in Wales.

1300 Johnniged sold about 9000 per year, before the World War II. They left every year in July with their onions hanging to big staff. They had to be pretty tough, because they had to pace the roads up and down, all day long…

And they had to speak English, too! A little bit... even though in Wales, the typical Celtic land, the Breton man and the Welshman perfectly understood themselves! Johnnies only came back home when all their onions were sold.

They came back in winter, with some English customs: they took tea at 5PM and put portrait of the queen Victoria everywhere in their houses! And those onions’ sellers became ″men from England″, paotr Bro-Saoz, because they spoke more English than Breton! And they forget all the French they learned at school...

And also!