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It's an enduring image of the French -
bicycle riding, stripy-topped.
All I need now is a string of onions!
Like a lot of people, I assumed this image was a myth.
But there may be something in it, just look at this photograph.
It was taken in the 1950s and it shows onion sellers
from this part of Brittany. They look every inch,
or rather centimetre, the Frenchman.
I'm in search of what are known as the "Onion Johnnies".
I'm told there's a new generation of "Johnnies". I'm going to meet one.
If I'm looking for the classic image of a Frenchman,
Emmanuel Le Noac'h doesn't disappoint.
-A great pleasure to meet you.
-You're already stringing onions.
-Yeah, yeah, I'm starting my season.
Can you tell me what an Onion Johnnie is?
It's only a onion seller who goes to England,
and me particularly I'm going to London, but we really started
in Wales because of the language, because the Breton language
is nearly the same as the Welsh one.
-You're putting these onto the string
because this is how you have to show your...
It's not really to show, it's to keep it all the winter.
So you take your raffia,
you tie there with the neck, the air can't go through.
You can keep it 10-12 months.
So this is organic preservation?
It's organic preservation, exactly, yeah.
Now do tell me, because some of these onion sellers
in the 1950s photograph are wearing berets.
How important is it to have an onion seller's costume to look French?
Yeah, it's like a costume, it's a bit like a business thing,
so with the beret against the rain is very good.
During the winter, I know they used to put newspaper in it.
-Keep your head warm.
-Yes, but normally
you wear it like that, on one side.
Have you ever worn a stripy...?
I haven't got, but all the English people ask me where is my striped T-shirt!
Onion Johnnies have been coming to Britain for nearly 200 years,
sort of informal ambassadors,
toting a taste of France door to door.
It began in the 1820s as a bit of market research.
Local farmers crossed the Channel to see if the British
had an appetite for Roscoff onions.
We liked them so much, they've been coming back ever since.
In their heyday, around 1,500 Onion Johnnies left their loved ones
behind at the end of each summer to spend up to six months in Britain.
Straight from Brittany, madame, feel the weight.
Roscoff is proud of its cross-Channel connections
and its onion-growing tradition.
At the local museum, the Maison des Johnnies,
they organise regular tastings,
with lashings of local cider of course.
I'm surprised to find that the guests here are all French,
as curious as I am about the Onion Johnnies.
If you go to Rennes, it's not far, it's only 200km from here,
people don't know the onion men, none at all.
We're more well known in Birmingham than in Rennes!
The guest of honour tonight is former onion seller Pierre.
-So this is you here.
Was it necessary to wear an onion seller's uniform?
You should wear a beret, you always have a beret to do
door to door Frenchie.
It seems that from one small place in Brittany
we created our stereotype of the French nation.
From Exeter to Glasgow, from Swansea to Newcastle,
they zigzag across Great Britain
with a little piece of France on a string.
It's certainly a romantic image, but what about the realities of life
on the road, away from your family for a large part of the year?
Sans glace, ni rien...
Olivier Seite and his wife Anne must have seen more tears than most.
Hello, very nice to meet you.
They were in the onion business for more than 40 years.
Olivier started selling at 14 with his dad,
and here he is in the 1960s.
-Want some onions?
-Yes, we'll buy some, please, how much are they?
-Same price, four and six a bunch.
-How do you manage the English language?
Well, I know enough to sell my onions.
You don't find the Geordie accent baffling?
Oh, a little, but I'm used to it.
We travelled by boat, but after we were in England
we stayed six months and we find a place to storage the onions.
I mean, Olivier had a very hard life before,
they used to sleep on the onions with a sail cloth on over them.
Now, Anne, you're not speaking with a very French accent,
-you sound as if you come from the north of England.
-Ah, yes, well...
Raised in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Two bunches, please.
For most Onion Johnnies, their job took them away
from their nearest and dearest, but for Olivier it led him to his.
He met and fell in love with Anne while on a night out in Newcastle.
You fell for a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy to dance.
-Oh, I did, I did!
-Did you know that your dancer was an onion seller?
I did not. I thought it was a myth - French onion men.
All my friends in the office, I said, "I've just met this French onion man
"and I think this is the one," and they said, "A French onion man!
"Oh, trust you!" Cos I've always been different.
What's the most important quality an onion seller needs?
Just what is it about those onions that made it worth the Johnnies
travelling such eye-watering distances, some as far as Shetland?
And why would Brits prefer them to home-grown varieties?
On his farm overlooking Roscoff harbour,
I'm hoping veteran Onion Johnnie Andre Quemener can tell me.
Or better still show me.
Are they good raw?
-Yes, it's sweet.
They are delicious. They're not bitter or sharp.
-You can eat them like an apple.
What is special about the soil? I mean, it's very fine and rich.
Oh, yes, a lot of seaweed on it.
-You put seaweed on it?
-Yes, every year.
-And does the seaweed fertilise the soil?
That's why they're so nice, you see.
Is there a future for Onion Johnnies selling onions in Britain?
Oh, yes, oh, yes, it'll be a few years yet to go.
-What about you, though?
-Ah, well, it depends on my health now.
-You look pretty fit.
-Oh, yes, but I'm 73 now!
-Do you still enjoy it?
-Yes, oh, yes.
-What do you call it? Like a drug.
-You're addicted to onions?!
All right, so we go for our cup of tea now?
Good, suits me just fine, Andre!
Andre's farmed and sold his own crop since 1951,
but when he hangs up his onion knife,
there'll only be 20 or so Onion Johnnies left.
While it seems the beret-wearing image is mostly
for the benefit of customers across the Channel,
it's that relationship with the British
that keeps the tradition alive.
Last string of onions on the handlebars.
I'm told by the Johnnies that, with all this weight
on the handlebars, you can't take the bike around corners.
And it's so heavy, it's like trying to pedal a Sherman tank!
Merci. Would you like some onions?