Ever heard that cliché about French people wearing stripped shirts and berets? Riding a bike and carrying a baguette? Forget about the baguette.
The story is about French farmers, British housewives and onions. It’s the story of the Onion Johnnies.
Henri Ollivier – A Britton who took a boat
In 1828 Henri Ollivier was a farmer in Brittany. He cultivated a tasteful pink onion near the town of Roscoff in Finistère. Because Finistère was so isolated from the rest of France, times were hard for Ollivier. He often had to travel hundreds of kilometres to sell his production. One day he and his companions tried their luck on a small boat. They filled it with onions and crossed the British Channel.
A hundred years later there were up to 1500 farmers crossing to England each year with tones of onions. Not unlike today, the British market was much more profitable than the French one and the Frenchmen took a habit of commuting. They would sail to Britain with their production in July and return to France in December.
The report from the BBC shows some fascinating archival footage:
From Jean to Onion Johnnies
As a lot of French farmers were called Yann or Yannick – the Britton equivalent of Jean, which is very common in France – their British customers quickly nicknamed them “Johnnies” or “Onion Johnnies”. The name remains until today.
At the time, Britton peasants, like most French peasants wore small round hats also known as berets. In England, they used to ride bicycles to which they would attach large braids of onions and sell door to door. For most people at the time, this was their only contact with French people and in their minds Johnnies soon came to represent the average Frenchman.
This stereotype spread to all of Great Britain, then to the United States of America and to the rest of the world. Up until today, many people all over the globe think of French people as Onion Johnnies without knowing it.
Roscoff – The Capital of Onion Johnnies
Although this activity practically ceased in the 1950’s, the tradition is not lost. Nowadays about a hundred Johnnies still cross the channel (by ferry) and the British press even predicted the return of the famous onion farmers as the economic crisis intensifies in France.
In 2009 the Roscoff Onion was given the AOC certification. Its cultivation is now overseen by the Syndicat de la Défense de l’Onion de Roscoff and can only be carried out in a specific protected area near the town of Roscoff. Every August a festival is organised by the sea to celebrate the harvest.
The local band Tonnerre de Brest wrote a song telling the story of a young boy who sails to England with his father to sell onions.