Berets worn at a jaunty angle, Gaulloise cigarettes hanging from their lips, bicycles smothered in plaited strings of onions – each of which weighed between one and two kilogrammes – French onion sellers were once a familiar sight on the streets of Britain, plying their trade from door to door, from the Channel ports to as far north as the Orkneys and Shetlands.
Born at the dawn of the 19th Century, it’s a time-honoured trade that at its between-the-wars peak, in 1929, involved some 1,500 so-called Onion Johnnies – all of whom came from one tiny area around the Breton port of Roscoff.
Today just a dozen Onion Johnnies stay in business but the pink Roscoff onion, now given AOC appellation controlée protection and distributed by more conventional means, remains highly prized in kitchens across Europe. And, in the back streets of Roscoff there’s now a dedicated and memorabilia-packed Maison des Johnnies et de L’Oignon Rosé museum at 48 Rue Brizeux. Here you can learn about the Onion Johnny story and the famous pink onion, meet with the professionals, enjoy tastings of onion based products and find a discovery trail on a mini train including a visit to an onion grower.
Don’t miss the annual onion festival if you’re in Roscoff in August – music, dance, games and onion-related celebrations galore for an authentic taste of Brittany.
Details of opening times and information for the Onion Museum and the annual onion festival on the Roscoff Tourism website.
Visit Roscoff via Brittany Ferries
By Roger St Pierre, Member of British Guild of Travel Writers. This article originally appeared on The Good Life France, an Untapped Cities partner site.