In Roscoff, the Brexit had the skin of the johnnies

By Manon Boquen

Posted today at 2:20 a.m., updated at 5:06 a.m.

Marcel Quéméner has long sold Roscoff onions across the Channel.  His daughter, Tiphaine, took over, with her brother, in 2020.

End clap. After forty-two years of crossing the Channel to sell Roscoff onions in Wales, Patrick Mevel, 63, has retired. “It was heartbreaking to say goodbye to my clients,” admits, soberly, the man with clear eyes, returned to the Finistère town of 3,500 souls after his last and final tour, at the beginning of February. Throughout these years, the stern-looking Breton has practiced a particular profession: that of johnny. For six months, from August to February, he offered his onions to traders in and around Cardiff, first by bicycle, then by truck. Bundlers – the people who clean and weave vegetables – worked alongside him at his Welsh premises.

“It’s a difficult but free profession, which has opened my mind”, says the one who hesitated to become a soldier or a geography teacher. A family discovery with his maternal grandfather, also Johnny for a time, led him to this unique profession of which he is the penultimate representative. At the time of stopping, he castigates: “Thousands of people have made France, its language, its products shine in Great Britain. There is a lack of recognition of what the johnnies have accomplished, they deserve a Legion of Honor! »

Beret, baguette, onion necklace

This profession, proudly attached to the commune of Roscoff, is indeed disappearing without too much noise. Appeared in the XIXand century, it nevertheless left its mark on entire generations, who went across the Channel to sell their wares door-to-door. Among the British, it has even shaped cultural representations to the point that, in the collective imagination, the average Frenchman wears a beret, a baguette under his arm… and a necklace of onions! In the 1930s, at the height of the profession, there were 1,500 johnnies, before a slow decline in the following decades. There were only 160 left in the 1970s. Then Brexit came as the final blow, complicating the procedures and definitively dissuading vocations.

“It’s a job of survival, which could become a job of passion. » Estelle Boudillet, author of a thesis on johnnies

To go back to the origins of the johnnies is to come up against the legends maintained by the merchants themselves. Among the most tenacious myths, we hear that the first to have tried it would be a certain Henri Ollivier, in 1828. “I have found no trace of a trip to England on his parthowever notes Estelle Boudillet, who wrote a memoir on the history and meaning of the nickname “johnnies”. But, as early as 1815, five passports had already been distributed to Roscoff onion merchants to cross the Channel. » In this vegetable Trégor, prospects for those who own little or no land are limited. The harvests over, the poorest try their luck in a Great Britain which is industrializing and importing most of its foodstuffs.

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