Richard, Sabine, and Lais love spending Sundays at the farmers market near their apartment in Charleroi, Belgium. And I love hearing about their adventures—the unusual mushrooms and pumpkins, the bait-and-switch apples, and the sticker-shock onions.
Never did I suspect the 10 Euro onions would lead down a path of European history, culture, and a darn good story.
Richard paid for a selection of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and onions from one of the farmers at the market. As he walked away, checking the bill, he couldn’t believe that half of the total—10 Euro—was spent on 1.4 kg (3 lb.) of onions. They were nice looking onions, he told me later, but 10 Euro? Then he noticed a sticker. These weren’t just any onions. They were Roscoff onions of Appellation d’ Origine Controlee status, the champagne of the French allium world.
Having never heard of the famous French Roscoffs, I had to do a little investigating. Roscoff onions are pink-fleshed (Oignon Rose) natives of the far-west reaches of Brittany. They are valued for their sweet, mild flavor and make the finest French onion soup. But that is just part of their story.
As far back as the 16th century, Roscoff valued its onions. In the town’s Place Lacaze Duthiers, there is a house decorated with a stone gargoyle clutching a rope of onions. In 1828, a French farmer named Henri Ollivier decided it was easier to cross the English Channel to sell his Oignon Rose to the British than to make the arduous trip to Paris with his harvest. The first “Onion Johnnies” carried 60-100 pounds of onion ropes hung from poles they laid across their shoulders. By the end of the 19th century, there were hundreds of Onion Johnnies riding bicycles, handlebars draped with the onion ropes, hawking Oignon Rose door-to-door in England, Wales and Scotland. The trip was not without its costs. In 1905, 73 Onion Johnnies were among the 127 passengers who perished when the S.S. Hilda, heading from Southampton to Brittany, ran into the rocks during a snowstorm.
By 1929, the Brits were consuming 9,000 tons of onions from 1,400 beret-wearing, bicycle-pedaling, French onion farmers. Each July, the Breton farmers brought their harvest across the English Channel to store in rented barns, slept on beds of straw in small rooms at the onion depot, knotted the onions into portable ropes, and sold their exclusive produce by bicycle. In December or January, they returned to farms in Brittany. (There were no ferries from Brittany back then.)
World War II interrupted the trade, but by the late 1940s, the Onion Johnnies were at it again. The stereotype of Frenchmen wearing berets and riding bicycles was born in the English countryside and on city streets as the Onion Johnnies, and an occasional Onion Jenny, sold their goods. In the 21st century, the old-time Onion Johnnies thrive only in the museum Maison des Johnnies et de l’Oignon de Roscoff, 48 rue Brizeux , and for the two-day Fete de l’Ognon each August in Brittany. Laurie Lynch
Cousin Connection: At another farmers market, on this side of the Atlantic, Richard’s cousin Wille (my chef-phew) has another story. As a chef in Washington, D.C., Wille rarely gets Sundays off. But on this particular Sunday, with no kitchen duty, he headed to the DuPont Circle farmers market. At that same market, chef, author, local foods activist, and proprietor of Chez Panisse Alice Waters was selling and signing her latest cookbook: My Pantry.
“It was just random, happenstance, serendipitous that I was off on this Sunday,” Wille panted, catching his breath. I was panting too, having just a handful of garlic cloves left to plant for the 2015-16 season. My mom, God love her, brought the phone all the way out to the garden. “I never thought I’d actually meet Alice Waters. I can’t believe this. I’m standing in line for her book right now. Do you want a copy?”
A half hour later, Wille called to report his success. Alice was there, with her daughter and co-author Fanny. How was she? “Charming,” he said, still dazed. What did you say to her? “Oh, I just gave her my elevator speech. Worked at Ubuntu. Ate at Chez Panisse.” And then he mentioned something about sleeping in some chef’s home…
A week or so later, I picked up a package at the State College post office—my very own copy of My Pantry. On the endpaper was a blue sticky note from Wille: From Alice’s hands to yours!