Where else to look for onions in a town but in the Roman-fronted market? The Romans reputedly first carried onions to Britain, and maybe as far as their auxiliary camp at Neath (Nidum), now a town skirting Swansea; I know it well and am always happy to spend time in its streets. The town centre has some characterful buildings from the 19th century, although the entrance to the market – proclaiming civic pride – dates from 1904. The oversized relief of the common seal of the town shows one imagined version of the Roman fort, while the distinctive porch itself is a simpler idea of a possible wooden two-storey structure.
The onions I found inside were no ordinary ones but those from Brittany. There the soil, climate and cultivars produce a very flavoursome, good-looking bulb which has a pink tinge; hence such names as ‘Rosé de Roscoff’ and ‘Rosé de Bretagne’. If the quince – the Golden Apples of the Hesperides – lent its glow to the ancient sunset; the Rosé de Roscoff could equally claim to lend its pink tint to the dying embers of the day from their western stronghold.
Since Alexandre Dumas’ day (see his rambling Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine,1873) these Breton onions have traditionally been associated with individual sellers, rather than the mainstream channels of distribution. Breton men and boys, affectionately called ‘Onion Johnnies’; would tread the roads of England, Wales and Scotland selling door to door. Based in central warehouses, where they would roughly board, they originally carried their plaits of onions from shouldered poles, later riding festooned bicycles. The height of the trade was in the 1920s when it was claimed that about 1400 Johnnies sold 9000 tons of onions in a year, providing commerce for what was then not a very rich region of Northern France. There is a special link between the Breton travellers and their Welsh customers. It is said that the Johnnies could roughly converse with their Welsh-speaking customers though their native Breton language; both languages belonging to the same Brythonic branch of the Celtic language family (see the interesting note in the Wikipedia entry for more on this).
The pink heads with green top-knot of the serried rows of onions are a ubiquitous sight on parts of the rough coast of the Breton peninsular. Armorica (as it was known to the Romans) is exposed to the stormy Atlantic but benefits from the balmy air of the Gulf Stream. In Dumas’ time more onions were grown there than the rest of France put together. I like his writer’s caprice, drawing on the mythology of Ancient Rome to explain the appearance of the planted fields that lead down to the seashore; those vanquished in the war of the Gods against Jupiter were chased to the ends of the continent where, ‘seeing that there was no more land on which to continue their flight, changed themselves into onions to escape Jupiter’s wrath’.
There is an attractive and varied collection of recipes at the Prince de Bretagne website (the Breton producers’ association, I wish we had access to more of their delicious looking vegetables here); especially if you have been tempted to buy as many strings of onions as we have. This is the Roscoff onion and bacon tart, I just remembered to record it for posterity with the camera before this alternately salty-sweet; crisp-soft tart was completely consumed.
Simmering the sliced onion in butter very slowly is so important, give yourself plenty of time. Any Roman gladiator would no doubt agree that you need to slowly tire the wild tiger to transform the beast into a purring pussy cat.
The ‘Coliseum’, in the shape of a Le Creuset pan, was put on a slow burn, the heat being further reduced with a diffuser. This stage maybe took an hour, but it was quite an exciting transformation of sight and aroma.
(Update: On driving down Newton Road at speed a rosy glow was noticed above the pavement. Olive and Oils Delicatessen has an attractively hung display of Breton onions and shallots procured ‘direct from the producer’. I hope this will be a reliable supply, especially as they are almost half the price of the ones at Neath Market; caveat emptor – may the buyer beware!)