He looked liked a cute French guy who sold onions from his bicycle. Every week at the farmers' market he would be there; a charming Gallic touch, so quaint and picturesque. But he was also so much more: a part of a long tradition of "les Johnnies et de l'oignon rose".
It turns out that men have been travelling from Roscoff, Brittany in France to England to sell their special delicious pink onions since the 1920's. They came on foot, then on bicycles, laden with onions and going door to door to flog them in the early autumn when they are at their freshest. There were 1500 of the "Petitjeans" in 1929 and today there are still 20 left in the UK. Our "Johnnie" ( the name given to those men) comes from Roscoff where his family has had a farm forever. He and his fellow Johnnies come over on the ferry from Brittany every month and knock on doors in North London, selling their pink garlic and onions.
There are only one hundred farmers still in the business, which is being revived. No chemicals or pesticides are used in the growth. Half of the crop is sent to the UK, 40% is sold in Brittany and the last 10% in the rest of France in a co-op. The onions are planted in March, picked in August, and sold from October through to February. The artichoke crop is planted in February.
The onion farming in Roscoff dates from the 17th century. The onions are rich in vitamin C and keep well so they became a staple food for sailors on board ship.
Traditionally they are braided. The tying up of the neck of the onion stops the entry of air and allows them to stay fresh for six months. They are plaited by hand, onion after onion, around a central rush stem. :: Maison des Johnnies
More on Heritage Foods
:: Eating Local Food
:: Slow Food Movement
:: Saving Heritage Seeds