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…


Anonymous said...

I never realized that onions had such a long and varied history. Thanks for the recipe, I'll give it a go!

Pam said...

Interesting history! We love onion soup...thanks for the recipe - I'm eager to try it!

Barbara said...

Hi Gigi,
I remember watching a documentary once about these courageous lads.
I don't think that many modern people would be able to do likewise without a car or truck !
Yummy recipe also ;)

Have a good Monday .

Sarah said...

I remember seeing them, and in fact when I pop back I see the occasional one. Where my parents live is on one of their routes, obviously.

Now though, there is the French market which takes over the wide pavement once a month or so, selling all sorts of lovely things but also the cheapest Dijon mustard you can get (type Top Budget) for a fiver. Now if that isn't blatant ripping off, I don't know what is!

Tinsie said...

I love onion soup! It's my staple when I'm in France. Yum yum.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for all that history, Gigi. It's just amazing what you can learn around here.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to trying the recipe. We all love onion soup. Thye have an 'onion fair' at Givet, to the north of here, every Automn so we can stock up.

Anonymous said...

I just learned the expression "Occupe-toi de tes oinions." My husband told me what I should tell our nosey French. :)

So, your post was a perfect for me.

Anonymous said...

Do you happen to know if the phrase "Occupe de tes oignons" has anything to do with these onion sellers?

Gigi said...

Thanks for your comments everyone - I made onion soup the other day and added crème frâiche...mmn. Creamy onion soup. I'm still trying to find out what the expresion 'occupe-toi de tes oignons' means. Haven't had any luck so far...

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