Where was I all these years, utterly ignorant of the Onion Johnnies?
Shouldn't I have known about them since they hail from Brittany (where I was born)...
Elizabeth Day in Only 15 of Brittany's Onion Johnnies survive (Guardian, December 21, 2008) seems to conclude that they are about to join the list of Endangered Species in the UK.
They were honored by Ian MacDougall in his book Onion Johnnies (cover above, 2002), a portrait of the working life of 9 of them in Scotland.
According to Meg on Too Many Chefs (March 2004), the tradition can be traced this way:
"In England, the typical image of a Frenchman is a mustachio-ed gentlemen (well, actually, peasant) on a bicycle with strings of onions hanging from the handlebars and a striped shirt and beret. Why a bicycle, you might ask? Why the onions?
In fact, it is all down to one farmer from Brittany named Henri Ollivier, who in 1828 decided to stow his bike and his surplus onions in a boat and cross the channel to sell his onions in England. He was so successful that other farmers from his hometown of Roscoff followed. For the next 150 years the tradition continued, with thousands of Bretons flooding into England in the winter months, selling Roscoff pink onions door to door.
And thus a stereotype was born. The number of "Johnnies" (or Petitjeans in their own language) has dwindled in the last twenty years, but apparently there are still a few of them around. As recently as October of 2002, the 65 year old André Quemener was still making the crossing to sell onions in Scotland."
At least my day was not wasted, I learned something.
Brittany Related: 'Histoire de Chocolat' The story of Brest in Chocolate Instalments