Pirates, smugglers and pink onions
Pirates, smugglers and pink onions
A little granite town on the rugged Normandy coast steeped in the sea exploits of pirates and smugglers, also has its feet firmly planted in the soil.
While a tiny centuries’ old white-washed chapel devoted to Saint Barbe protector of sailors, continues to provide a landmark for boats heading out to the Atlantic Ocean, surrounding fields are devoted to horticulture, including a distinctive variety of vegetables with its own special story.
This is the Brittany port of Roscoff, famous for its onions, where Alexander Dumas Père, renowned author of ‘The Three musketeers’ and The Count of Monte Cristo, came to write the ‘Onion’ chapter of his 1873 Great Dictionary of Cuisine.
It’s where for more than 165 years, ‘Onion Johnnies or ‘Petitjeans’ as the English call them, have crossed the channel taking crates of locally grown pink or red onions to sell door to door in the city streets of England, Scotland and Wales.
On arrival, the onions are hand woven into strings by tightly braiding single onions at the neck down a central rush stem to keep the air out and ensure the onions stay fresh for months.
For us the story starts to unfold in the narrow streets of Roscoff which include a Rue des Onion Johnnies. Here closely built immaculately cared for grey stone houses, restaurants, hotels and buildings with specialty stores, date back to the 16th century.
Tucked away in the back lanes is a small museum full of onion equipment and memorabilia, where Veronique, a local expert, shares the experiences and hardships of the Onion Johnnies.
We hear the traders were given the name ‘Onion Johnnies’, because many of the first sellers were named Jean or John in English. Not however the first Breton who set sail for Plymouth in the1820s in a flat bottomed ‘gabare’ boat, stacked with onions. His name was Henri Olivier. The twenty-year-old’s trip was so successful others soon followed and a regular trading pattern was established.
Small, dark dressed and passionate, Véronique Goncalves tells us in French and very good English, how trading developed into organised groups or ‘companies’ comprising sellers, stringers and apprentices (some as young as eight years old), recruited by a ‘master ‘or boss, who was then responsible for travel arrangements, from accommodation and food, to storage for the onions.
Following harvest of the onions through a northern summer, the Johnnies and their onions depart in the autumn, crossing the channel in one to five days depending on weather conditions, and not returning home till December or January.
In a business taking place in the harsher winter months, it wasn’t always easy, as you can imagine, especially in those early years.
Not only was there often a rough passage to contend with, but it was a matter of being up very early, selling till dark, through weeks of often bleak and bitter conditions with the prospect of returning to dark and dingy living quarters, over the long months that made up the selling season. On top of this, language and currency difficulties had to be coped with.
Getting British householders to make a purchase didn’t always go smoothly either. Sometimes rejections came thick and fast. “When sales were not forthcoming, often the young boy sellers would offer to give the onions away for nothing, suggesting potential customers take some to try. But tough housekeepers or housewives would still say no and close the door firmly in their faces”, Veronique explained with a catch in her throat.
But it was a sense of adventure that lured so many young men and more recently women overseas, initially to make sales on foot, balancing ten to twenty kilos of onions strings hanging over a stick on their shoulders. Then when bicycles appeared on the scene, they became the preferred mode of transport and allowed individual loads of up to 100 kilos to be carried.
The sale of French onions in this way continued to build over the years, till a number of events and incidents upset the pattern.
Firstly, the ferocious seas between the two countries were responsible for tragic losses in two shipping disasters. Towards the end of the 19th century at least fifteen Johnnies were killed in a boating accident off the coast of Guernsey. Worse still, early in the 20th century, more than seventy Johnnies perished in a steamer at sea near the coast of St.Malo. (The reason numbers can’t be absolutely accurate, is because of inefficient record keeping at the time).
Later, trade was brought to a standstill for the duration of each world war. While sales resumed easily when World War One ended – the Onion Johnnies simply picked up the business again and successful trading saw figures peak at 1500 sellers trading 10,000 tons - it was a different story after the Second World War. This time, regulations were put in place to protect local British business, by limiting future sales from Brittany.
Although these restrictions were eventually lifted, other acts of English protectionism in the form of taxes and shipping quotas followed, making sales difficult. So much so, the young lost interest and as a result the business began to fall away and has continued to drop dramatically.
Consequently today there are less than twenty Johnnies still going to parts of England, Scotland and Wales, selling Roscoff onions.
And on the growing side, cultivation is reduced to100 hectares of pink onions by a hundred or so growers working on around thirty different communes. This yields just 3,500 tons for both local and export use.
Despite these statistics, much energy is being put into reviving the trade and working towards achieving AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) accreditation. This is highly desirable for product profile and for regional recognition, but difficult to attain. It requires production to be restricted to a specific locale, all aspects of the crop to be organic and all work to be done by hand.
In this instance, there is a further compelling reason locals are working hard to revive their historic crop. While all onions are associated with health-promoting effects, pink or red onions also contain anthocyanins, a very potent antioxidant recognised as an effective cancer preventative compound. This is just a part of Roscoff’s special attraction.
Above all, Roscoff and its surrounding countryside are a beautiful fertile part of Normandy to visit, especially in spring. The area is laid out like a large market garden, with planted fields stretching in all directions. Along with the onions, are endless neat lines of bushy globe artichoke plants representing 90% of the entire French production, plus some potato plants, vegetables and herbs.
Furthermore, just a twenty minute boat ride away, there’s a whole island devoted to horticulture and nature. Frosts are rare on the tranquil Ile de Batz, (pronounced Ba). which produces early crops of artichokes, cauliflowers, onions, carrots and is famous for its new potatoes.
A delightful destination for holiday makers, especially for families with young children. Part of the charm is a lack of vehicles, as no cars are allowed on Batz. Bikes or Velos can be hired for full or part days, either in Roscoff before departure or on the Island.
Just 4km long and 1.5km wide, with its pretty lanes crisscrossing the land and snaking around the coast, it is ideal for walkers and bike riders. Two circuits are offered for day trippers, taking in natural ponds, the perfect home for ducks and their ducklings, as well as charming farm houses and handmade stone walls dating back to fifteenth century. There’s a lighthouse, ancient church remains, an exotic garden, “Jardin George Delaselle” with plantings from around the world, including a Maori section, and a small selection of cafes, and bars, many with terraces to enjoy the view.
Altogether here’s a destination with historic buildings and tales, nature walks and experiences, access to a bit of boating, water sports and fishing, a stress eliminating Thalassotherapy Centre, plus great local food, wine and a locally made beer.
Of course, there’s a chance to discover first hand, more about the intriguing lives of the Onion Johnnies.
Tourist office - 46 Rue Gametta.
www.roscoff-tourisme.com email email@example.com
© 2008 L. Donald
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