Beer Pickled Roscoff Onions

Mention Roscoff Onions to people of advanced age in the UK, such as myself, and there's a good chance that they will start to tell you nostalgic tales of the Onion Johnnies selling their onions door to door throughout England and Wales while dressed in hooped shirts and riding bicycles. This isn't a complete fantasy, there were Onion Johnnies and they did ride bikes and very possibly wore Breton hooped shirts now and then. (In fact, I'm told that there's an Onion Johnny Museum in Roscoff). But the truth is that the heyday of the Onion Johnny was before World War Two and by the 1960s and 70s there were very few about. When I was a young thing in the early 1960s, there was a Breton onion seller who visited our area of London but I'm pretty sure he had an old battered van and not a bike. (I'm not too certain if he wore a striped shirt, but I doubt it). My family didn't buy any onions from him because they considered onions to be too exotic and posh for the likes of us.

Times have changed and, following a long career of onion eating, I recently came across a man from Brittany selling Roscoff onions at a market stall. He was keen to sell off some of the smallest onions cheaply and so that's how this story begins.
Roscoff Onions
Now I'm about as up-to-date and trendy as a hansom cab driver wearing a tattered tweed jacket while singing madrigals but I've noticed that a couple of local, stylish restaurants have added beer pickled onions to some of the dishes on their menus. So I decided to make my own version. Pickled onions in corrosive, dark vinegar and the even more abhorrent pickled egg were very popular in my youth, but not with me. Rest assured that these pickled onions are very different. You don't have to use Roscoff onions and any good, small onions will do but, if you do come across Roscoff onions, then I'd recommend making the most of them.

The beer in the pickling liquid adds colour and a distinct savoury depth without overwhelming the flavour of the onions. Of course, it's not just any old beer: the restaurants use designer craft ales from whichever local microbrewery they favour. Well, why not? I used a wheat beer from Suffolk because I like wheat beer and I think it complements the other flavours. You could use any beer you like, but I'd avoid any very bitter or rich styles of beer in case their flavour becomes too dominant.
Beer Pickled Onions
The pickled onions will sit happily alongside cold meats, smoked fish and cheeses but recently I've seen them used to accompany venison and to add an additional flavour to winter salads made with veg such as carrot and celeriac. They can also be chopped finely and added to your favoured ketchup or chilli sauce to supercharge burgers or sausages.

400 g small onions (Roscoff, ideally), trimmed and peeled
300 ml wheat beer (or whatever beer you fancy - see above)
150 ml cider vinegar (or white wine vinegar if you prefer)
40 g soft, dark brown sugar
20 g granulated sugar
4 tsp runny honey
2 tsp black peppercorns, lightly crushed
6 or 7 juniper berries, very lightly crushed
1 tsp sea salt

You'll need a jar with a vinegar-proof lid that will hold all the onions and the pickling liquid. Sterilise the jar before use. Peeling small onions is a bit of a pain but the old trick of immersing them in boiling water for a minute or so before cooling and peeling works very well.

Really small onions can be kept whole but I prefer to slice most of the onions in half from top to bottom. This will mean that some of them will start to fall apart during the cooking process, which is how I like them. If you prefer crunchier onions, then leave all of them whole.

Put all the ingredients except the onions into a saucepan (not too small because you'll be adding the onions later). Stir thoroughly and bring to the boil. Add the onions and bring back to the boil. Lower the heat and allow the onions to simmer gently in the pickling liquid until they seem as tender as you'd like them to be. Personally I prefer them not too crunchy and simmer them for at least 10 to 15 minutes but, if you like crunch, then cook for less time. Remove from the heat.

Allow the onions and liquid to cool a little, then pour into the sterilised jar. Seal the jar and place in a cool, dark place. Leave the jar alone for at least a week, although two weeks or longer would be better. This will allow the flavours to develop. Although this pickle should keep pretty well, once opened it's advisable to keep the jar in the fridge and use within about 3 months.
Beer Pickled Onions


  1. Phil, I will never make pickled onions, not that onions are "too exotic and posh for the likes of us" (I loved that!), but I just don't like them. My mother, of course, made pickled onions and pickled eggs when she went through her pickling phase, and everyone in the family loved them except me. I was just thankful, though, that she didn't make pickled trotters! Probably because 1) she knew no one else would eat them, and 2) she couldn't get a hold of any trotters. She would have liked your recipe, I'm sure. I don't recall her using either beer or juniper berries, but she liked them, so she'd be all over this recipe.

    1. Well I certainly don't blame you for having an aversion to pickled onions. I was deeply offended by the strange pickled onions sold in the fish and chip shops when I was growing up. But my wife really, REALLY loves onions and so I've been persuaded to rethink all aspects of the onion.

  2. PS Do you remember the episode of All Creatures Great and Small where Granville Bennett gives James pickled onions? It's a hoot!

    1. Actually I'd completely forgotten All Creatures Great and Small. Thanks to YouTube, though, I'm sure I'll be able to track it down.

  3. We did have a French onion seller on a bike, when I lived in Wales as a child. He came every year, and my Welsh speaking Grandma would try and have a conversation with him. They did understand each other a bit! Mum and Grandma pickled onions every year, and the smell invaded the house! I must admit to loving them.These sound really good so will give them a try. Pickled onions, cheese and good bread - heaven!

    1. I've read that Breton and Welsh have a surprising number of similarities and I'd really love to have heard that conversation. When I bought these onions the seller spoke in good English and I replied in bad French, which is much less interesting. Rest assured that this pickling liquid is less pungent and lingering than some traditional malt vinegar pickles.

  4. I have to admit to being a fan of pickled onions, a cheese and pickled onion sandwich being an occasional treat. We used to have a pickled onion with a ham salad for Sunday tea when I was a nipper, the onions pickled by my grandmother. She made huge jars of them, sweet as anything and the process always fascinated me. They are obviously still very popular judging by the amount of shelf space devoted to them in our local UK supermarket but some of the flavours available are positively terrifying, way too fiery for me. These sound delicious.

    1. I looked at the pickled onions on offer at my local supermarket today. There weren't that many and most of them seemed to be expensive offerings in small jars with Italian names and balsamic vinegar. That's probably a Surrey thing.

    2. Phil, I think you have pretty much summed up the difference between our two worlds. Where you live you have Waitrose and balsamic pickled onions. Where I live we have Tesco and hot chilli pickled onions, usually displayed next to the bags of pork scratchings.
      Hey ho.


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