French onion sellers set to make a comeback in Plymouth
With his beret set at a jaunty angle, a fine moustache tickling the underside of his nose and – above all – a string of onions about his neck, he is the true comedy Frenchman.
The Onion Johnnie came to represent the Gallic stereotype in the same way that the tweedy, ruddy-faced country gentleman did for the British.
Once thought consigned to the cultural dustbin of lazy archetypes, the travelling salesmen from Brittany who peddled their wares by bicycle are making a comeback.
Stung by a sluggish home market, the producers of Brittany's celebrated pink onions have decided it is time to cross the Channel and tempt a new generation of British cooks.
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Earlier this week, the Etoile du Roi, or Star of the King, a replica of an 18th-century sailing ship, set off from the Breton port of Roscoff weighed down by a hefty cargo of onions that it will deliver to London on December 6, after stopovers on the Channel island of Jersey and at Portsmouth.
As well as the four tonnes of onions on board the Etoile du Roi, another 20 tonnes of Roscoff onions are being dispatched to England by Brittany Ferries.
Jean-Frangois Jacob, the secretary general of the local agricultural co-operative, said it was time to look for new markets.
"Our geographical isolation from the rest of France and Europe makes it hard for us and in these tough times, not trying to find alternative outlets for our produce would be suicidal," he said.
The so-called Onion Johnnies started flooding into England from Brittany in 1828 and quickly became a favourite of the British housewife.
According to Francois Seite the trip across the Channel was considered an easier one to make than one overland to the markets of Paris.
The former salesman who is now the president of the local "Johnnies" association and Chamberlain of the Confraternity of the Onions of Roscoff, said: "From Roscoff to Plymouth, it is the same as Roscoff to Rennes [in southern Brittany], except that there is the Channel in between them."
The 72-year-old former farmer said that like his father and grandfather, he spent years on the highways and byways of England, first by bicycle then with a little van.
After the initial foray into the British domestic market proved a big hit in the 1800s, the tradition – and the iconic image – became established.
The title Onion Johnnie was a corruption of the name Yann which many of the sellers claimed to be called.