In a humble village near Roscoff, Brittany, François Seité continues a long tradition of onion farmingby Wendell Steavenson / September 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
In 1828, Henri Ollivier set off from his farm in Brittany with a cartload of artichokes to sell in Paris. The roads were so bad it took him three months to get to the capital. Hmm, thought Ollivier, whose farm was close to the port of Roscoff, if not by road, then perhaps by sea? He chartered a boat loaded it with pink onions. Onions, thought the enterprising Ollivier, lasted longer than artichokes. He landed in Plymouth, a town bustling with labourers. They needed fresh food; onions were a good source of nutrition (every sailor knew they staved off scurvy) and Ollivier found a ready market.
Word spread of the success of his enterprise. Brittany was a poor province with a rugged smuggling coast, rich sandy soil and plenty of rain; good for growing vegetables and not much else. Other farmers followed Ollivier’s example. Onion associations formed, and every July, after the cauliflowers were planted, farmers took their crop of pink onions and sailed for Britain. They soon spread from Wales to London to Aberdeenshire. They strung their onions with raffia and looped them on poles, walking the streets, selling door-to-door for several months. The English called them “the Onion Johnnies!” Generations of Bretons went to Britain and sold their onions. By the 1920s, 1,500 Onion Johnnies were going to Britain every year, selling 10,000 tonnes of onions. They wore the traditional stripy Breton pullover of Brittany, a beret and they hung the strings of onions around their necks. For many British people, they were the only Frenchmen they had ever met; and the image of the Onion Johnnie became the British stereotype of the Frenchman.
François Seité first went to England to sell onions in 1953. “I used to go with my father in school holidays to help him. My grandfather went to Bristol and began there in 1908. My father, Guillaume, started in 1923. He was 12 years old, life was hard then, you can’t compare. I left school at 15 to sell onions and help the family. I would take my bicycle all through Bristol. You had to push the bike in the morning when you were carrying a hundred weight of onions. Life in England was much easier than in Brittany then, more comforts in houses, carpets in the salons, things we didn’t have. And the money…