Onion Johnnies Coast


Onion Johnnies

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It's an enduring image of the French -

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bicycle riding, stripy-topped.

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All I need now is a string of onions!

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Like a lot of people, I assumed this image was a myth.

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But there may be something in it, just look at this photograph.

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It was taken in the 1950s and it shows onion sellers

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from this part of Brittany. They look every inch,

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or rather centimetre, the Frenchman.

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I'm in search of what are known as the "Onion Johnnies".

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I'm told there's a new generation of "Johnnies". I'm going to meet one.

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If I'm looking for the classic image of a Frenchman,

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Emmanuel Le Noac'h doesn't disappoint.

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-Hello, Emmanuel.

-Hello.

-A great pleasure to meet you.

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-Good afternoon.

-You're already stringing onions.

-Yeah, yeah, I'm starting my season.

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Can you tell me what an Onion Johnnie is?

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It's only a onion seller who goes to England,

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and me particularly I'm going to London, but we really started

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in Wales because of the language, because the Breton language

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is nearly the same as the Welsh one.

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-Celtic language.

-As Celtic.

-You're putting these onto the string

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because this is how you have to show your...

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It's not really to show, it's to keep it all the winter.

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So you take your raffia,

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you tie there with the neck, the air can't go through.

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You can keep it 10-12 months.

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So this is organic preservation?

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It's organic preservation, exactly, yeah.

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Now do tell me, because some of these onion sellers

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in the 1950s photograph are wearing berets.

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How important is it to have an onion seller's costume to look French?

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Yeah, it's like a costume, it's a bit like a business thing,

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so with the beret against the rain is very good.

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During the winter, I know they used to put newspaper in it.

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-Keep your head warm.

-Yes, but normally

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you wear it like that, on one side.

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Have you ever worn a stripy...?

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I haven't got, but all the English people ask me where is my striped T-shirt!

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Onion Johnnies have been coming to Britain for nearly 200 years,

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sort of informal ambassadors,

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toting a taste of France door to door.

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It began in the 1820s as a bit of market research.

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Local farmers crossed the Channel to see if the British

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had an appetite for Roscoff onions.

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We liked them so much, they've been coming back ever since.

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In their heyday, around 1,500 Onion Johnnies left their loved ones

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behind at the end of each summer to spend up to six months in Britain.

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Straight from Brittany, madame, feel the weight.

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Roscoff is proud of its cross-Channel connections

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and its onion-growing tradition.

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At the local museum, the Maison des Johnnies,

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they organise regular tastings,

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with lashings of local cider of course.

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I'm surprised to find that the guests here are all French,

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as curious as I am about the Onion Johnnies.

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If you go to Rennes, it's not far, it's only 200km from here,

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people don't know the onion men, none at all.

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We're more well known in Birmingham than in Rennes!

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The guest of honour tonight is former onion seller Pierre.

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-So this is you here.

-That's me.

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Was it necessary to wear an onion seller's uniform?

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You should wear a beret, you always have a beret to do

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door to door Frenchie.

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It seems that from one small place in Brittany

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we created our stereotype of the French nation.

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From Exeter to Glasgow, from Swansea to Newcastle,

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they zigzag across Great Britain

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with a little piece of France on a string.

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It's certainly a romantic image, but what about the realities of life

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on the road, away from your family for a large part of the year?

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Sans glace, ni rien...

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Olivier Seite and his wife Anne must have seen more tears than most.

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Hello, very nice to meet you.

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They were in the onion business for more than 40 years.

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Olivier started selling at 14 with his dad,

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and here he is in the 1960s.

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-Want some onions?

-Yes, we'll buy some, please, how much are they?

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-Same price, four and six a bunch.

-How do you manage the English language?

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Well, I know enough to sell my onions.

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You don't find the Geordie accent baffling?

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Oh, a little, but I'm used to it.

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We travelled by boat, but after we were in England

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we stayed six months and we find a place to storage the onions.

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I mean, Olivier had a very hard life before,

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they used to sleep on the onions with a sail cloth on over them.

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Now, Anne, you're not speaking with a very French accent,

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-you sound as if you come from the north of England.

-Ah, yes, well...

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Raised in Newcastle upon Tyne.

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Two bunches, please.

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For most Onion Johnnies, their job took them away

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from their nearest and dearest, but for Olivier it led him to his.

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He met and fell in love with Anne while on a night out in Newcastle.

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You fell for a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy to dance.

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-Oh, I did, I did!

-Did you know that your dancer was an onion seller?

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I did not. I thought it was a myth - French onion men.

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All my friends in the office, I said, "I've just met this French onion man

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"and I think this is the one," and they said, "A French onion man!

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"Oh, trust you!" Cos I've always been different.

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What's the most important quality an onion seller needs?

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Persistence.

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Just what is it about those onions that made it worth the Johnnies

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travelling such eye-watering distances, some as far as Shetland?

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And why would Brits prefer them to home-grown varieties?

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On his farm overlooking Roscoff harbour,

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I'm hoping veteran Onion Johnnie Andre Quemener can tell me.

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Or better still show me.

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See.

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Are they good raw?

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Yes, see.

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-Very sweet.

-Yes, it's sweet.

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They are delicious. They're not bitter or sharp.

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No, no.

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-You can eat them like an apple.

-Yes.

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What is special about the soil? I mean, it's very fine and rich.

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Oh, yes, a lot of seaweed on it.

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-You put seaweed on it?

-Yes, every year.

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-And does the seaweed fertilise the soil?

-Yes, yes.

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That's why they're so nice, you see.

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Is there a future for Onion Johnnies selling onions in Britain?

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Oh, yes, oh, yes, it'll be a few years yet to go.

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-What about you, though?

-Ah, well, it depends on my health now.

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-You look pretty fit.

-Oh, yes, but I'm 73 now!

-Yeah?

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-Do you still enjoy it?

-Yes, oh, yes.

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-What do you call it? Like a drug.

-You're addicted to onions?!

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Yes, yes!

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All right, so we go for our cup of tea now?

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Good, suits me just fine, Andre!

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Andre's farmed and sold his own crop since 1951,

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but when he hangs up his onion knife,

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there'll only be 20 or so Onion Johnnies left.

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While it seems the beret-wearing image is mostly

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for the benefit of customers across the Channel,

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it's that relationship with the British

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that keeps the tradition alive.

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Last string of onions on the handlebars.

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I'm told by the Johnnies that, with all this weight

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on the handlebars, you can't take the bike around corners.

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And it's so heavy, it's like trying to pedal a Sherman tank!

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Merci. Would you like some onions?

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