"The Onion Jonnhies": meet the Breton men who grow onions worth £10 a kilo

In a humble village near Roscoff, Brittany, François Seité continues a long tradition of onion farming
September 13, 2017

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 was good. The half a crown was a lovely coin.”

François is in his seventies, hale and twinkly, and speaks perfect English with a faint West country accent. He lives in a Brittany village a little inland from Roscoff where his family have lived for generations. “Turn left after the pub,” he told me, “it’s the only pub around, you can’t miss it.” He was right. When I popped my head in the door it was full of villagers in the middle of a domino tournament. The walls were covered in photographs of Onion Johnnies through the ages, Welsh flags and football scarves from Liverpool and Celtic. There was Guinness on tap. “My father went every year to Glasgow,” one old lady told me. “Oh we are all onion families here!” A hundred and fifty years of trade had become a way of life, onions, cups of tea, shared pints: an abiding amitié grew between what François described as “La Grande Bretagne and La Petite Bretagne.”

Roscoff is a picturesque old town on the coast. The souvenir shops along the seafront sell postcards, buckets and spades, rain slickers and strings of pink onions. On a promontory is the plain whitewashed chapel of St Barbara where the onion boats were blessed before setting off. Onions are proudly hung on the facade of the Marie; there is a museum dedicated to the famous local pink onion and the story of the Onion Johnnies and in August they celebrate an onion festival. Roscoff onions are pink and pretty and famously sweet. Their success in Britain was due to their quality and, François believes, the traditional way they are strung together with raffia gives them a uniquely branded packaging.

The heyday of the onion sellers was between the wars. The exchange rate, François remembers, remained favourable in the postwar years. “We did well when the pound was strong.” But the trade was already declining. Younger Bretons no longer wanted to be away from their families for four months a year and there was competition from the cheaper Dutch yellow onion. In 1967, BBC Bristol made a documentary about the disappearing way of life that starred François’s uncle, Eugene. François showed it to me. “I still know that lady!” he said watching a scene of his uncle being invited for a cup of tea in Clifton by a young housewife with a brunette beehive.

In the 1970s, the French government finally began to invest in Brittany, building its first dual carriageway roads and a deep water port in Roscoff. In 1972 a local farmers’ co-operative founded Brittany Ferries to ship artichokes and cauliflowers from Roscoff to Plymouth. They now operate a big fleet carrying vegetables and tourists between Brittany, Britain, Ireland and Spain; the farmers co-operative is still the main shareholder. François’s son works for them in St Malo. In 2009 the Roscoff pink onion was finally awarded its own appellation d’origine contrôlée. François is now the proud President of the Association of the Roscoff Onion. Its superior quality has been formally recognised. “My daughter saw them in Harrods selling for £10 a kilo.”

“Roscoff onions are not just a vegetable,” said François, “they are a passport to a different world.” One of his father’s friends, he told me, had once sold onions to Winston Churchill. François showed me the oil portrait of his father with onions, and his collection of commemorative plates, one from the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, one a Davenport collectible painted with a London street scene and an Onion Seller. We went to see his barn where his onions were stacked. He was taking them on the ferry to Britain on the weekend. “I’m retired, really it’s just for old time’s sake,” he laughed. “I’m still an onion man. I have my regulars. My best customer is Mr Bartlett, a butcher on Green Street in Bath. He hangs up my onions all over his shop. My father used to sell to his father.”