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The Fascinating History of the Onion from Roscoff

The history of the Roscoff onion is very special: it deserves some attention to understand the attachment of producers to this onion which is the pride of the entire region.

Capucins monks ...

You have to go back in time to the 17th Century to discover the origin of Roscoff Onion. It was in 1647 that Brother Cyril, a Capucin monk, sowed the first seeds in the gardens of the convent upon his return from Lisbon. At that time, the town of Roscoff had an activity mainly linked to maritime trade, based on the export of salt from the south of Brittany and of linen cloth made in the region. The vegetables were grown in vegetable gardens and were used to supply sailors. Onions were an essential food for them, as they provided protection against scurvy, due to their richness in vitamin C.

Very quickly noticed for its gustatory qualities and its very long shelf life, the culture of Roscoff onion developed rapidly in the vicinity of the port. In the 18th Century, with the decline of the cloth trade, the peasants turned to the cultivation of onions and other vegetables in Roscoff and the neighboring towns.

... to the roads of Great Britain ...

But it was really in the 19th century that the notoriety of the Roscoff Onion gained momentum. History holds that in 1828, Henri Ollivier, a young peasant from Roscoff, attempted the adventure of going to sell his onions in England: he returned with empty holds and well-filled pockets ... began the phenomenon "Johnny", the nickname given by the British to the peasants of Roscoff and its region (little Jean).

Each year more numerous, the Johnnies expatriated at the end of July after the forgiveness of Sainte Barbe to go sell their onions door to door throughout Great Britain, first on foot and then by bicycle from the 1920s. The profession was difficult but fortunately profitable. The phenomenon reached its peak in the 1920s with 9,000 tonnes sold across the Channel by nearly 1,400 Johnnies.

The economic crisis of the 1930s, World War II, the devaluation of the pound and English protectionism then led to the decline in sales across the Channel. However, there are still today about fifteen Johnnies who keep the tradition alive ...