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Cooking the Classics: Soupe aux Onions

Cooking the Classics: Soupe aux Onions

French Onion Soup and Catherine de’Medici are tied in history, find out what it takes a real onion soup and decide if you want to call it French or not.

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Although the French are loath to admit it, prior to the 16th century, France was a rural backwater. There was little in the way of good eating and high culture. Most historians agree that the French learned about food and culture from the Italians, and the prime ambassador of this Renaissance goodness was Catherine de’Medici. The things we think of when we think of France—fine dining, aristocratic manners, palaces like Versailles, fine wines—they all date post-1533, when the daughter of Duke Lorenzo II de’Medici married Henry II, the son of Francois I and soon to be king of France.

Catherine (or Caterina, as she was called at the time) moved from Florence to Paris in 1533, when she was only fourteen, the age that most young women married. She had grown up in the high court of Florence, a rich and extravagant center for arts and culture. At the time, France was still a truly medieval state, full of blustering, warring knights who didn’t know their roast pheasant from their sole meuniere. The refinements of court life that we now associate with the French aristocracy was all but unknown, as the chronicler of the time Michele de Montaigne noted with many a sigh. Italy had been the cradle of the Renaissance, and enjoyed its pleasures for over a century, while the French were busy battling the English, sharpening their spurs, and caring little for the finer things in life.

Francois I was the first French king to bring Italianophilia to his country—he was a true groupie of all things Italian, especially art. He sent letters to the greatest Italian artists (Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Cellini, Rosso Fiorentino), inviting them to his court to live and work, and asking that they send him any work of theirs to add to his extensive collection. He eventually convinced Leonardo to come, and the great master lived out his life under the protection of the French king, and in France. That is why so many of his paintings, including the Mona Lisa, are in France—they were purchased after his death by Francois I and entered the French royal collection.

In matters of food, it was Catherine de’Medici, or rather the extensive entourage of chaperones, guards, priests, attendants, maids, gardeners and, of course, chefs who accompanied her to France, who brought some of the best advances of Renaissance Italy to France—and many would argue, they literally brought the Renaissance to France.

Catherine’s time in her new home was not without drama. Her husband favored his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, more than Catherine. When Henry died in 1560, Catherine became regent of France while their son, the future king Charles IX, was too young, at 10 years old, to rule. During that period, Catherine had the dubious distinction of having overseen the infamous St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of thousands of Protestant Huguenots in 1572. She was also renowned as a poisoner, which may have been true—but which was more likely a falsehood spread by her detractors, perhaps influenced by the exotic foods that her entourage and her own personal tastes brought from Italy to France.

The first modern cooking academy had been established in Florence shortly before Catherine’s departure, the Compagnia del Paiolo (or Company of the Cauldron). It was a city of experimentation, including the early uses of imported goods from the Americas, brought to Europe by Spanish conquistadors, including corn and tomatoes (which were thought at first to be poisonous). Perhaps Catherine’s claim to fame was introducing the fork to France. The earliest forks were two-pronged, but the whole concept of eating with a fork was revolutionary to France. Renaissance feasts would usually consist of a large piece of bread that acted like an edible plate, a spoon for soups, and a large knife, often brought by the diner. Eating with one’s hands was normal, even among the nobility. Catherine’s introduction of forks to dining tables meant that one no longer had to eat with one’s hands, making meal time a far less greasy affair.

Another innovation of the time was ice cream—Catherine’s cooks introduced iced foods and desserts to the French court. Her pastry cooks also took mundane and workmanlike baked goods and breads and made artworks out of them. Her chefs likewise promoted the use of fresh vegetables in an otherwise meat, fish, and starch-focused diet, as well as the serving of fruits and cheeses with meals. In short, so much of what we associated with French fine dining is actually of 16th century Italian origin, and came to Italy along with the young Catherine.

One of the dishes said to have made the trip over to France with Catherine is that most French of dishes, soupe a l’oignon gratinee, or French Onion Soup. Beef soups added to a base of sautéed onions have existed since ancient Rome, but all onion-based dishes were considered food for the poor. Root vegetables (onions, turnips, potatoes, beans) were thought of as not only for the working class but even harmful to the health of aristocrats, who should rather eat vegetables that grow above the ground. Likewise red meat, shellfish, and red wine were considered fit only for workers, and the nobility should eat only white fish, white meats (chicken, pork, fowl), and drink white wine. It took a revolutionary way of thinking, and palette, to convince the nobility to eat caramelized onions. Of course everyone knows now how delicious caramelized onions are, so one bite was probably enough to convert the haughty nobles, but someone had to be the first to introduce the new trend.

The version we consider a classic today, with toasted bread and gruyere cheese melted atop the soup, which is heat in the oven inside its serving ramekin, was around since at least 1913, the earliest known recipe to specify gruyere on top appearing in L’Arte du Bien Manger, by Edmond Richardin. But a 1651 cookbook, The French Cook by Francois Pierre La Varenne, gives the following recipe for “Potage of Onion” and that’s the one I’ll be cooking today—consider it the proto-Onion Soup, and almost certainly the one that Catherine’s cooks brought with them from Italy.

La Varenne’s recipe is so short, that we can reproduce it here:

"Cut your onions into very thin slices, fry them with butter, and after they are fried, put them in a pot of water. After they are well soaked, put in a crust of bread and let it boil a very little. You may put some capers in it. Dry your bread then put it in the stove, take it up, and serve it with a drop of vinegar. That recipe is a bit Spartan, because the only flavor comes from the browned onions. Water is used instead of beef broth. The capers will add salt but little else, though I do like the drop of vinegar, which is a good general addition to soups, if you’re cooking and need an extra little kick. For my version, I’d just used beef broth (from a bouillon cube if necessary, preferably by slow-braising beef on the bone) instead of water, and with the addition of any melted cheese (gruyere being the classic) atop the toasted bread."

It couldn’t be easier to do—the only real trick is not to burn the onions, but to brown them until there are translucent and colored. Adding white wine to the butter to cook them helps them along. Preheat your oven to 350/180 degrees and have the heat come from the top only. Ladle the soup into oven-proof ramekins, float a toasted piece of crusty bread covered in gruyere atop, and cook in the oven until the cheese melts across the top. Voila! A classic French dish that we have the Florentines to thank for.

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