These Guys Are Bringing Back the Onion-Selling French Stereotype

Three Breton friends are resurrecting the Anglo-French tradition of the “Onion Johnny,” the beret-wearing, bike-riding onion seller not seen on British high streets since the 1970s.

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May 22 2015, 2:22pm

This is the story of 600 kilograms of onions, a 10-metre boat, and three Frenchman.

This is the story of the last Onion Johnnies.

A common sight on the British high street for the best part of a century, these onion salesmen first came to UK shores in the early 1800s. Breton farm laborers by trade, they travelled over by sail and steam after the onion harvest in August during the onion off-season, when there was little work in the fields.

They'd work their way up through the British Isles, as far as Wales and Scotland, selling their onions to pubs and passers-by as they went—a common occurrence if not a mainstay of a summery Saturday shop. Rattling along on their bikes—a blur of striped shirts, berets, and onion plaits—Onion Johnnies are the very reason that the British hold such cliched ideas of the typical Frenchman.

Spot one in the street these days, however and you'd be excused for getting spooked. Onions Johnnies are of another time, wispy ghosts of a long gone era; the onion peel, if you will, of the past.

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That is until three Breton boys decided to breath life into the carcass of this fallen Anglo-French tradition.

Loading up in late September, Clemence, Hans, and Ronan set sail from Roscoff in Brittany, heading for the Cornish coast. They hopped from harbour to harbour, living on the boat, fishing and hunting, and sharing everything they had and the money they earned from the sale of their unique pink onions.

They lasted a month—and then the storms came and the onions went, and they returned to France and their ordinary lives.

Onion-Johnnies-new

Photo courtesy Onion Johnnies Are Not Dead.

Having met at sailing school in Roscoff, the threesome were looking for an excuse to spend more time at sea and when someone mentioned Onion Johnnies, it was the perfect pretext. Once that first charter was over, they were hooked.

"After that, we knew the Onion Johnnies seasonal work could be alive again—and that's what we're trying to do," they tell me via email, operating as a hive mind. "Build connections between Cornwall and Brittany and create a collective of Onion Johnnies."

The collective thus far takes the rather modest form of a Facebook group with 126 likes: Onions Johnnies Are Not Dead.

But Clemence, Hans, and Ronan are no (onion) flakes. Since that first charter they've been back to England, stringing and selling their organic pink onions in the streets, door-to-door, pub-to-pub, town-to-town. And later this year they plan to sell them at festivals too.

An Onion Johnny is a simple person with simple pleasures. He or she loves fish that you can cook with onion, enjoys a tasty and warm onion soup after a long day, and feels great when he gives a string of onions to someone in need.

All the profits they make are equally divided between the crew, including the organic farmer in Roscoff who provides them with the "sweet, beautiful, and tasty onions and shallots" they bring to Britain. However, they're currently looking for their own plot of land in order to produce onions themselves. They may well be the last of their kind, but they're not going out with a whimper.

In fact, they might be part of a comeback.

In 2012, thanks to dwindling market sales in France, a replica of an 18th century sailing ship The Etoile du Roi delivered 4 tons of Roscoff onions to London, stopping off at Jersey and Portsmouth on the way (a PR stunt if ever there was one). Another 20 tons were shipped over by Brittany Ferries, a company established in 1972 by—you guessed it—Breton farmers in order to corner the British market.

Onion-Johnny-French-Britain

Photo courtesy Onion Johnnies Are Not Dead.

This followed the announcement in July 2009 that the Roscoff onion was to be protected under the French Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée designation which, in turn, followed the opening of The Onion Johnny Museum in Roscoff in 2004.

There's no doubting Johnnies have some history. The first Onion Johnny travelled over to England in 1828. Henri Olivier, a peasant farmer and part-time sailor, thought the UK offered the potential for swift sales. He wasn't wrong. The legend goes that he and his companions returned to his homeland within a week, his pockets brimming with dosh.

That was all the other peasant farmers needed too see, and a tradition was born.

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The truth was, for the impoverished farmers of Roscoff, it was easier to sell onions in the British Isles than it was in their homeland. The short trip across the English Channel—and the towns beyond—offered an alternative to the arduous journey through France's immense countryside and the arterial lanes and rickety railways of 19th century Europe.

The trade grew over the next century, peaking in the 1920s when as many as 1500 Onion Johnnies hit British shores bringing over 9000 tons of onions with them. They remained a regular sight on the British high street until 1934 when the Great Depression hit and the Johnnies dropped to fewer than 400.

Onion-Johnnies-Breton

Photo courtesy Onion Johnnies Are Not Dead.

That figure dropped again in 1973 to 160 (trading 1100 tons) and by the end of the 20th century, with the advent of mechanised farming and more efficient means of distribution, there were only 20 of their number.

Today, there's just the three.

But why bring this old school and outmoded method of selling back to the 21st century?

It's the Onion Johnny ethos, Clemence, Hans, and Ronan tell me: providing goods to people who want to know what they're getting, and offering human contact instead of corporate fuck ups and food miles. It's authenticity guaranteed.

"An Onion Johnny is a simple person with a simple pleasure [sic]. He or she loves fish that you can cook with onion, enjoys a tasty and warm onion soup after a long day, shares everything he earns, and feels great when he gives a string of onions for free to someone in need," the three Breton boys say. "We want to keep the tradition of the Onion Johnny alive. Onion Johnnies are not dead!"

The French and their onions, eh.