The onion Johnnies have just been back to Washingpool and there are now strands of onions, garlic, and shallots hanging everywhere. They look great, like a sort of bizarrely festive alternative to Christmas tree baubles.
I still haven’t tried biting into one of the onions raw. Maybe I will later. I think it’s the kind of sport that needs an audience, to see what kind of face gets pulled – yummed or yukked…
I REMEMBER the first time I ever saw an onion Johnnie.
I had no idea what he could possibly be doing. He was stood against an old bike in Beaminster Square, wearing French workman’s blue and a beret, and smoking a cigarette. From the handlebars of his machine hung strings of onions and bulbs of garlic. He looked bored.
Naturally, I went over to talk to him. I can’t recall now exactly what he said – it was about 16 years ago – but the gist of it was that he’d come over from Roscoff in France and was going around towns in the south of England selling his vegetables. What a way to make a living, I thought, and I bought some garlic and some onions.
I didn’t expect much of them, but they were the best garlic and the best onions I’d ever had. I saw him again the year after, and again about three years after that, but then – “Rien…” I assumed it was one of those old traditions that simply died out.
About 80 years ago, more than 1500 Johnnies de Roscoff (little Johns) used to trudge around the streets of England, Wales and Scotland. It was foolish to expect that kind of trade to continue into the 21st century…
But now they’re back! Alas, alas, I missed seeing them, and I think they came in a van, but two of them definitely just stopped by at Washingpool Farm Shop near Bridport, and their onions, shallots, and garlic are now on sale there (pictured).
An accompanying leaflet – translated from the French – reads:
“The traditional presentation, in plaited strings, of the pink onion from Roscoff is another of its enhancing particularities. Tying up the neck of the onion stops the entry of air and thus allows it to stay fresh for six months. The string weighing around 1 or 2 kilogrammes is plaited by hand, onion after onion, around a central rush stem.”
Alan Holland, of Washingpool Farm, says the Johnnies get a better price in England than in France for their produce. And, Mr Holland adds, he can’t buy onions grown in England as good as theirs. Shallots neither. Nor garlic.
“I like French garlic,” he says. “English garlic is very unreliable, although it’s getting better. I don’t get involved with Chinese garlic, there’s not the quality, and there’s the environmental side of it, it comes a long way.”
French sailors used to eat raw pink Roscoff onions for weeks if not months on end.
Mr Holland chooses not to bite into them like apples.
“But you can try it though,” he says with a smile.
I haven’t yet…