Letter from Europe

The humble onion

Issue no. 2020/18

Picture above: On the left, the distinctive lozenge-shaped Cipolla Rossa onions from Tropea in Calabria. On the right, the rose-tinted onions from Roscoff in Brittany (photo © hidden europe).


Breton onion sellers set out from Roscoff to sell their harvest across Europe. But the preferred market was Britain where customers were prepared to pay well over the odds for the beautiful rose-tinged onions from Finistère. The Onion Johnnies, their bicycles laden with garlands of onions, were a familiar sight in southern England and Wales in the 1950s and 1960s.

Dear fellow travellers

You probably don’t think too much about onions. Nor did we for many years. But, on our travels around Europe, we have come to understand just how wonderful onions can be.

The appealing torpedo-shaped red onions from Tropea on the coast of Calabria are so exquisite that it’s worth a journey to southern Italy merely to savour the taste of the Cipolla Rossa di Tropea on its home territory. If you want to explore the intimate relationship between taste and place – what the French call terroir – Tropea is a good place to start that journey of discovery. Onions, we now appreciate, are as varied as wines. And, like wine, the humble onion reflects the soil and climate in which it is cultivated.

In Spain’s Ebro Valley the mild, slightly sweet Cebolla Fuentes de Ebro has a delicate green tinge. Yet a Roscoff from Brittany, white inside like the onions from the Ebro, has a pinkish hue on its outermost layer. It’s no surprise that this most illustrious of French onions is often called the Rose de Roscoff. It grows in the warm soils of the Ceinture dorée on the north coast of Finistère, around the ports of Saint-Pol-de-Léon and Roscoff.

Breton onion sellers set out from Roscoff to sell their onions across Europe. But the preferred market was Britain where, in the absence of any distinguished local onion crop, customers were prepared to pay well over the odds for the beautiful rose-tinged onions from Finistère.

The onion trade between Brittany and Britain goes back to about 1830, when onion growers around Roscoff hit on the idea of shipping their surplus crop to Devon in south-west England. By the mid-19th century, Breton-speaking onion traders from Finistère discovered there was also a good market in Wales, where they received a warm welcome by virtue of a shared Celtic culture.

There was surely a time when, insofar as inhabitants of rural England or Wales had any direct contact with Frenchmen, it would have been with the onion sellers who travelled from village to village in the late summer and autumn months.

These Onion Johnnies, as the traders from Roscoff were known, came to symbolize French agrarian tradition. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were a real feature of the British food scene. Their bicycles were garlanded with onions, and were rarely ever ridden. The bike served merely to transport the onions. The traders dressed the part too, often wearing striped Breton jumpers and sporting a beret.

By the 1960s, farmers from the Finistère coast realised that it was more than onions that found a ready market in Britain. They started shipping cauliflowers and artichokes too. In time they created their own shipping company to handle the trade across the Western Channel. The Onion Johnnies are long gone, but that shipping line founded by a Breton farming collective is still going strong. It is called Brittany Ferries.

The port of Roscoff has its annual onion festival and, on the outskirts of the town, a small museum tells the story of the Onion Johnnies. The Rose de Roscoff still rates as one of Europe’s most sought-after boutique onions. Like the Cipolla Rossa di Tropea, it’s an envoy of landscape which finds its way to the dinner table. A good onion is a chance to celebrate the local and support agrarian traditions which have happily survived the powerful deceits of globalisation.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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