Friday, September 28, 2007

Minding your onions

In 1828, the story goes, Henri Ollivier, a young farmer from Roscoff in Brittany, set sail for Britain in a fishing boat filled with pink-skinned onions and ruddy-cheeked companions. For some reason, he thought that the British might like to try the delicately flavoured local onions - and he was right. From then on, there was no stopping the petitjeans or Onion Johnnies, as the British called the onion sellers.

They formed themselves into "companies" led by a master (they used the English word) and in the beginning, each company numbered up to sixty onion sellers, onion stringers and apprentices. The master was responsible for drawing up contracts, establishing wages, sorting out accommodation and attributing the beer and tobacco allowances. He also planned the itinerary: the onions were sold throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, from Scotland to Cornwall and from door to door. At first, the onion seller was on foot, carrying up to twenty kilos of onions strung around his neck. From 1921, however, when bicycles became more common, he was able to carry up to one hundred and fifty kilos with hardly a wobble. This gave rise to the enduring stereotype of the onion-bearing, bicycle-riding, beret-wearing French peasant in his stripy t-shirt that persists today.

photo courtesy of Vincent

Before they were sold, the onions had to be strung together and this was the job of the botteleur. It was an awful task because he had to stand hunched over all day and make at least one hundred and fifty strings. As if that wasn't enough, he also had to cook for everybody else, presumably from a cookbook named "A Thousand and One things to do with an Onion". Fortunately, his contract included two pints of beer a day, which gave him something to cry into at the end of an evening.

The apprentices were recruited as young as eight. They were taught a few useful English phrases and sent out with an onion seller to learn the trade. It was a hard life: they weren't allowed 'home' until the all onions had been sold and 'home' was often nothing more than a leaky barn on the outskirts of some English village. Moreover, their mothers had stayed behind on the family farm and only a few came over to visit their husbands for short periods. Those women who did decide to stay weren't allowed to go out selling: they had to cook, clean and be generally domestic, so that most of them jumped in the first boat back to Brittany when the opportunity arose.

The Onion Johnnies had their ups and downs. In 1898 and in 1905, ships carrying the Johnnies sank and nearly ninety lives were lost. Also in 1905, the Aliens Act limited the number of onion sellers coming over to a mere twenty (although, in typical French fashion, the Johnnies found a loophole). Then came the First World War, which got everybody in a pickle and after the Second World War, the British government simply forbade the retail of imported fresh vegetables because of its own economic crisis. The ban was only lifted in 1954 and the following year, 852 Johnnies were back at work.

Believe it or not, there are about twenty Johnnies still working in Britain today. Some of them even continue to ride their bicycles but this is mostly for the benefit of the tourists. Oddly enough, if you mention Roscoff or Onion Johnnies to the French and they won't know what you're talking about. Even the stripy-t-shirt-beret-bicycle thing is a mystery to them because their idea of a typical Frenchman is a cross between General de Gaulle and Christian Lacroix, with a bit of Sacha Distel thrown in.

Still, they certainly know their onions. Their onion soup is world famous and one explanation of its origins (to be taken with a pinch of salt, perhaps) is that King Louis XV returned late one night after a hard day's monarching, with the munchies. All he could find in the kitchen was onions, butter and champagne. He mixed everything together, cooked it and - voilà! - French Onion Soup. I have serious doubts about this story, as I'm sure King Louis wouldn't have even known where the kitchen was, never mind the butter - but I could be wrong.

I prefer to believe that the soup originated in Lyon. They say that their Gratinée Lyonnaise is the original French Onion Soup, so as I am biased, here is the recipe:

800gr/2lbs of onions
120gr/4oz of Comté cheese
(you could substitute cheddar)
4 thick slices of wholemeal bread
40gr/2oz of butter
one rounded teaspoonful of sugar
1,25 litres/ 2 1/2 pints of beef stock
freshly ground black pepper

Peel and thinly slice the onions. Grate the cheese. Put the slices of bread in a low oven to dry out. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the onions. Season and cook on a low heat for about 15 minutes, with the lid on. Take off the lid and continue to cook for 30 minutes. Sprinkle on the sugar and let the onions caramelise before pouring in the stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 15 minutes. Pour into individual ovenproof soup bowls and place a slice of bread on the top of each one, making sure it soaks up some of the liquid. Top with the grated cheese and put the soup bowls under the grill for 5 minutes, until the cheese is toasted. Serve at once and let it warm you to the very tips of your toes…

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Who would have thought the French invented rugby? Well, the French for one…they claim that a game called la soule was brought to Britain by William the Conqueror but in fact la soule was just one of many rugby or football-like games played all over Europe in the Middle Ages. The game usually involved two rival villages. The villagers stood on neutral ground and the soule – often an inflated pig’s bladder or a piece of stitched leather filled with sawdust, bran or even dried dung – was thrown into the air. The aim was to get the soule to one’s own village by running or kicking it across country while fighting off the burly opponents. There were few rules and a soule match was a dangerous, violent and rowdy affair. No change there, then…

The French did invent tennis, though, that’s for sure. Real tennis – from royal tennis-began as the jeu de paume (palm game). It truly was ‘the game of kings and the king of games’ – Louis X died after a game (he drank water that was too cold) and Henri II was a champion among monarchs. King Charles V built the first known indoor court at the Louvre in 1368 and the French Revolution was hatched in the tennis court at Versailles, although this was because the would-be revolutionaries had been locked out of the assembly rooms.

It was invented by bored monks who started throw a ball made from a piece of cloth around the cloisters, hitting it with the palm of the hand when it fell back. Well, it beat Gregorian chants, I suppose. They began using harder balls which meant the players had to wear a glove to avoid injury (as in cricket and basketball today). Then a wooden bat was used and eventually a racquet, which had the form of a forearm and a palm. The racquet with strings of sheep gut, laced across the frame, was developed in the sixteenth century.

A rope was introduced and the ball had to be hit over this (later, of course, it became a net). Special bouncier balls were made by paumiers and when rubber was discovered, Parisian balls became a coveted booty for pirates. Please note that I have not made a single, unsavoury joke so far…

The word ‘tennis’ is a deformation of the phrase 'Tenez Messires’…roughly translated as ‘Take that, sirs’ which was uttered at the moment of service. One of the explanations for the strange scoring system of 15, 30, 40 is that it was based on the presence of a clock face at the end of the tennis court; another that in medieval French numerology, 60 was the equivalent of our 100. Doesn’t explain the 40, but still. The term 'deuce' is derived from the French deux meaning two and ‘love’ is possibly derived from the French l’oeuf meaning egg and symbolizing zero although there are more likely explanations.

When the finer days arrive, in dusty village squares all over France, in the shade of plane trees, elderly men in string vests and berets drink pastis and play boules. In Provence, the game is known as pétanque, a word derived from the provençal ped tanca or ‘feet together’. In 1910, a player called Ernest Pitiot suffering from rheumatism, was unable to do the little run before throwing his boule so he was allowed to throw it standing with his feet together. The tradition stuck – as did poor Ernest, no doubt. The image is very vivid…

In the game of boules Lyonnaises, the metal balls weigh nearly a kilo, bigger than those used in pétanque, and the player must run before ‘shooting’. In both games, the object is to throw one’s boule so that it lands as close as possible to the small wooden jack, called a cochonnet.

Billiards, it seems, is another French invention. Some say it originated as an indoor version of croquet – itself derived from a French game called la crosse. Some say it was the other way round. At least we know that the name comes from the French billart, the stick that was used, and this probably comes from the word bille, meaning ‘ball’. The game was played on a table covered with a green cloth and the object was to push a ball through a wicket to hit a peg. The narrow end of the stick came into play when using the club end would have made a shot difficult to control. This was called the queue from which we get ‘cue’. For a long time, women weren’t allowed to use this end of the biliart as it was feared they would rip the cloth…that was the official reason, at any rate. I bet the real reason was that the men were simply terrified of losing to the ‘weaker sex’…

I have never learnt to play tennis and I’m no great fan of football but I did play pétanque once. It is a more skilful game than it looks and gets even more difficult after a few glasses of pastis…still, at least I didn’t have to wear a string vest. That would have put everybody off their shot…