March 12, 2004
Onion Johnnies

(photo courtesy of

In England, the typical image of a Frenchman is a mustachio-ed gentlemen (well, actually, peasant) on a bicycle with strings of onions hanging from the handlebars and a striped shirt and beret. Why a bicycle, you might ask? Why the onions?

In fact, it is all down to one farmer from Brittany named Henri Ollivier, who in 1828 decided to stow his bike and his surplus onions in a boat and cross the channel to sell his onions in England. He was so successful that other farmers from his hometown of Roscoff followed. For the next 150 years the tradition continued, with thousands of Bretons flooding into England in the winter months, selling Roscoff pink onions door to door.

And thus a stereotype was born. The number of "Johnnies" (or Petitjeans in their own language) has dwindled in the last twenty years, but apparently there are still a few of them around. As recently as October of 2002, the 65 year old André Quemener was still making the crossing to sell onions in Scotland.

Traditionally, Bretons see themselves as closely linked with their Celtic friends across the channel. They take seriously the fact that they live in Bretagne (the real Britain) and across the water is the Grand Bretagne of their relatives. So this cross-cultural exchange has existed ever since the first Bretons migrated to the land of the Angles and Saxons. The Johnnies have been seen as real friends by their English clients over the years and I find this whole story quite charming: food serving as a basis for cultural exchanges and understanding. Of course, this is really an exchange between the Bretons and the Brits, leaving the French sadly out of it!

Luckily for me, living in France I don't have to rely on a sadly declining tradition to get my Roscoff onions; last week I bought some at the local supermarket.


Aren't they lovely? I have to admit I bought them for the fact that they were braided rather than any foreknowledge of the species. (I'm a sucker for good marketing and long for the day when I can have a proper larder with onions and garlic and maybe even sausages hanging from the ceiling...)

However, as soon as I sliced one open, I noticed they were out of the ordinary. First, there is the fact that they are, indeed, pink:

cut roscoff.jpg

Secondly, they did not make me cry. I hate it when onions make me cry and as I cook a lot with onions it's quite a cross to bear. Roscoff onions although they have plenty of flavour are much sweeter than your standard white or yellow onions. This is especially important when you are making something like French Onion Soup, which calls for a lot of onions.

So last night I decided to sacrifice the remaining Roscoff onions in one big bang of a hot winter soup:

Tearless French Onion Soup (4 bowls)

5-6 Roscoff onions
1 clove garlic
4 cups beef stock
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
4 handfuls of grated gruyère cheese (any hard French cheese will do)
4 slices of toasted bread (something fairly dense that will stand up to soaking)
salt and pepper to taste
4 Tbs/60-70 grams butter
1/4 cup dry sherry or white wine

Melt the butter in a frying pan and use a garlic press to add the garlic. While the garlic is starting to cook, slice the onions in thin half-circles. Add them to the butter and garlic and turn up the heat a bit. While the onions are starting to cook, collect and chop the herbs finely. (At this point, if you are not alone in the house you will most likely hear someone call from the other room "Smells good - what are you cooking?") Add the herbs and continue cooking until the onions are soft and limp and even a bit brown and glazed in places. In the meantime, heat your beef stock in a small saucepan. Add the sherry to the onions and cook until the liquid is mostly gone. Add the onion mixture to the beef stock and turn out the flame under the frying pan: it's day is done.

While the beef and onion flavours are gently mingling in your simmering soup, toast your bread. Make enough for two bowls initially - you can always add more later. Grate your cheese. Taste the soup and decide whether it needs salt (probably not unless you are using home-made stock) or pepper. When you can't wait any longer, set the oven to heat. If you have an electric oven, you can set just the top element heating to "grill" the soup.

In each bowl, ladle soup to about 1 inch (2.54 cm) from the top of the bowl. Float your bread on top of the soup and cover generously with cheese. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper and put in the oven until the cheese is bubbly and just starting to brown.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of this soup last night but it was lovely. We have just enough for two more bowls left over from this recipe, so perhaps tonight I'll remember...if I don't get carried away by the smell of those lovely Roscoff onions!

And here's the photo - it was even better the second day!

onion johnnies soup


The story on Johnnies from a Breton website (in English)

The story of André Quemener in the Scotsman Heritage site

And a book about Onion Johnnies

An interesting article from the Telegraph on the current (well, 2000) Johnnies

Posted by Meg in Sussex at March 12, 2004 9:37 AM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

That's a great story! I love learning these colorful stories behind things that you don't usually think to question. I wish I could buy my onions from a French guy on a bicycle. But of course, it's a long way by boat from Brittany to Cleveland.

Posted by ladygoat on March 13, 2004 at 3:58 PM

Thanks for the comment! I think it's a real shame they are a dying breed - I guess it's no longer "exotic" to buy French onions these days, when you can get mangoes and artichokes all year round at the local supermarket.

Anyway, you've got Zubal's books in Cleveland which I would LOVE to have around the corner from me...;)

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 13, 2004 at 4:25 PM

Our farmers' markets here have all kinds of onions including the pink and red ones; many of the sellers also braid their garlic. Much better than the supermarket varieties.

Posted by lazykitchenhand on March 15, 2004 at 8:42 PM

Yes, I love braided garlic and it seems to keep better than individual heads too. The onions never last long enough for me to say, though!

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 16, 2004 at 10:07 AM

looks really good i want some now

Posted by moett on January 3, 2005 at 4:46 PM

I lived on the Isle of Wight in the late thirties ( I was about 10) and clearly remember the onion sellers. Thanks for your article.

Posted by John Stafford on March 9, 2005 at 12:58 PM

I lived on the Isle of Wight in the late thirties ( I was about 10) and clearly remember the onion sellers. Thanks for your article.

Posted by on March 9, 2005 at 1:02 PM

I lived in Brighton Sussex from 1939(birth)and i can remember the onion sellers with the strings of onions hanging from the handlebars of their bikes,they used to store the onions near shoreham harbour if i remember correctly.
My father was a greengrocer and would buy strings from them.
Going to Roscoff on 15/05 for the daybut the onions have got very expensive now.

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