Friday, October 24, 2014

Madeira wine, Vin de Madère and the French Menu.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Madeira Wines
Photograph courtesy of Patrick Barry
Vin de Madère  - Madeira wine.
Smooth, fragrant and opulent fortified wines with an alcohol content of between 18-21 percent. These wines only come from the Portuguese Madeira Islands in the North Atlantic.
A fortified wine is made by ending the fermentation that takes place in the barrels by adding an eau-de-vie, a grape alcohol, to the wine.  Ending the fermentation before it is naturally completed controls the amount of alcohol in the wine and the level of sweetness.  The sweetness of Madeira wines are divided into four main groups: seco-dry, meio seco- medium dry, meio doce-medium sweet and doce-sweet.
Madeira wine is a longtime favorite in French cuisine and your menu may offer:
Soupe à l'Oignon et au Madère Gratinée  French onion soup served with toasted bread and cheese on top, browned under the grill before serving.  This menu listing has Madeira wine added to the soup and that identifies it as a recipe from the city of Lyon, France.  According to tradition the city of Lyon uses Madeira or Port for flavoring and the city of Paris uses wine.  To see the post on French onion soup click here.
Rognons de Veau Poêlés, Sauce Madère et Gratin de Pommes Charlotte – Lightly fried veal kidneys prepared in a Madeira sauce and served with mashed Charlotte potatoes browned under the grill before serving. Charlotte is a very popular and tasty French potato; it is not a name for a potato dish. The Charlotte  is the potato most often used in France for steamed or mashed potatoes; here it is obviously prepared as mashed potatoes.   Sauce Madeira is made with veal stock or  veal bouillon, butter, shallots and, of course, Madeira wine.
Foie de Veau Sauté au Madère - Veal liver  sautéed in  a Madeira wine sauce.
Langue de Boeuf aux Petits Légumes, Sauce Madère. – Beef tongue served with baby vegetables and prepared with a Madeira sauce.  Beef tongue with a Madeira wine sauce will be on quite a number of French menus; it is a dish that has remained popular for over one hundred years. Baby vegetables are miniature versions of regular vegetables and were first developed in Italy; since then French creations have been added.

Melon Cavaillon au Jambon de Bayonne ou Madère. - Cavaillon melon served with Bayonne cured ham and flavored with Madeira wine.  The Cavaillon melon comes from the beautiful Provencal small town of the same name, 20 km (13 miles) from Avignon.   The Cavaillon melon is,  I believe, the tastiest melon in France; anyone visiting France during its mid-June through September season should not miss out on this melon.  The melon is green on the outside with dark green ribs; inside a ripe Cavaillon melon the flesh is sweet and orange colored with a heady and memorable scent.  Bayonne ham's name comes from the city of Bayonne; the capital of the Pays Basques, the French Basque Country. Bayonne is in the department of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques and its ham is the most popular cured ham in France.
Cavaillon melon and Bayonne ham.
Photograph courtesy of weldonwk.
Ris de Veau aux Morilles, Sauce Madère – Veal Sweetbreads served with morel mushrooms and Madeira wine sauce.
Tournedos Rossini The most famous of all steak dishes made with Madeira wine; it is named after the Italian composer Gioachino Rossini. Rossini composed the operas, the Barber of Seville and William Tell, along with many others and was loved in France where he lived for many  years and also composed the music for operas in French.  Rossini was also a gourmet and considered great chefs as maestros, like him they were masters of their art.  The cut for a tournedos comes from the cœur de filet de bœuf, the heart, the center, of a fillet of beef; this is the most expensive of all beefs cut.  The same cut  is used for a Chateaubriand.  The recipe named after Rossini includes goose foie gras, fattened goose liver, the black Perigord truffle and a Madeira wine sauce.  To see the post on Tournedos Rossini click here.
A Tournedos Rossini
Photograph by Monkey Business through   
The different types of Madeira wine:
Madeira wines made with a single type of grape are considered the finest, but they are also the most expensive. Historically, there were over eleven types of Madeira wines, but only seven or eight were truly single grape wines. Today only four white grapes and one red grape made be used for single grape Madeira wines. These wines are aged and the their date of bottling is on the label. A single grape Madeira wine means that at least 85% of the wine comes from a single type  of grape and that grape gives the wine its name. However, the most popular Madeira wines are the less expensive, but often excellent blends. The blends also improve with age and may be purchased with different degrees of sweetness. 
Did you forget your Madeira wines in a cellar?
In 50 years you may be pleasantly surprised.
Photograph courtesy of kiljander.
The single grape Madeira wines: 
Sercial is a white wine grape and the driest of  all single grape vintage Madeira wines.  Sercial is usually aged for at least five years before being sold, and as it ages it darkens and mellows. Sercial is the Madeira wine most often served cold as an aperitif.
Sercial wines from1910 on sale.
Photograph courtesy of diego hernandez
Verdelho, a white wine grape is a golden, semi-dry wine and in France this wine and the slightly sweeter Bual Madeira wine are the Madeira wines most chefs choose for Sauce Madeira. 
Madeira wine barrels.
Photograph courtesy of Ulf Bodin.
Bual comes from the Boal Cachud white grape. This Madeira varies in color from golden to a deep brown as it ages. It is a medium-sweet wine and  either this wine or Verdelho  will be chosen  for Madeira Sauce. Bual may also be served as a digestif, a dessert wine; often as an alternative to port.
A  5-year-old Bual Madeira.
Photograph courtesy of Joanna Goldby

Malmsey comes from a white grape called the Malvasia Candida and makes one of the sweetest Madeira wines. Malmsey is a full-bodied wine and is used both as a dessert wine and in sweet desserts, pastries and sweet sauces.
Tinto Negra also called Tinta Negra Mole
Tinto Negra is the most abundant of all Madeira’s wine grapes. This is a red wine grape and the most popular wine used for adding the 15% permitted to the single grape Madeira wines.  Tinta Negra Madeira wine comes in dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet and sweet wines and accounts for 80%  of all Madeira wine sales. When you see a bottle of Madeira wine without any other name, the chances are that it is Tinto Negra or a blended wine consisting mainly of Tinta Negra.
Learning about Madeira wines in France:
My introduction to the story of Madeira in France was in the home of a French family.  My hosts, in honor of three overseas visitors,  invited a friend who was the cellar master in a Medoc Château  to join us  all for dinner. The cellar master had surprised us all with two great bottles of Medoc from different years;  seriously special vintage wines that I could not have justified buying myself.  However, the real surprise  that evening was the wine the cellar master brought as the digestif; he had brought a wine from outside France!  That wine was a Bual Vintage Madeira that had spent 20 years in an oak barrel before bottling.  With all these wines, our dinner discussions were about nothing else, and I was introduced to the history of Madeira wine in France. 
A Madeira tasting.
Photograph courtesy of fxp
The French view of the English control of Madeira wine.

The English controlled most of the Madeira wine trade and for hundreds of years England and France were at war. During their incessant wars, the British were always attempting to blockade France. Because of these blockades, Madeira only seriously entered the French market with the exile of Napoleon I from France in 1915;  then the wars with England ended. From 1815, Madeira became the new success story in French cuisine.  The most famous dish from that period using Madeira wine, and still on many menus, is Tournedos Rossini.The dish was  created for  the famous composer Gioachino Rossini by the legendary French Chef Casimir Moissons  in 1822 or 1823. 

Like Sherry and Port the British were the driving force behind the development of Madeira.
From the 16th century, Madeira wine was developed and imported by the English. The English had already made Port and Sherry a staple in the homes of the aristocracy and merchant classes and  then after Madeira came Marsala from Sicily.  At that time, all wine was sold in barrels and most wines did not travel well on long sea voyages. Fortified wine, wines whose fermentation in the barrel had been stopped traveled better. Madeira’s ability to travel well had also made it a favorite in the American colonies. However, in the North American colonies the laws on shipping the wine only on British-owned ships pushed the price of Madeira, their favorite wine, up. That shipping law was considered another unjustified tax on the colonists.   Madeira wine and tea helped push the movement for  independence to the tipping point.

The treatment of Madeira wines:
Madeira, sherry and port wines were transported to the British and others in India; however, the effect of long sea voyages through the tropics was uniquely beneficial to Madeira. Those long sea voyages naturally slowly cooked and oxidized Madeira.  That tropical exposure, in barrels, improved the wines taste and in the kitchen the cooks found they had a wine that could be used without the taste changing. Back on the Islands of Madeira two systems were created to emulate the process without sailing through the tropics, and the rest is history.
Madeira quickly became the most popular fortified wine in  French and other kitchens and has remained there.  Despite  its popularity in the kitchen most Madeira are consumed as wine.  Madeira wines' use in cooking remain a small part of the market.  
Madeira labels:
Colheita - Single grape Madeira wines aged and marked with a vintage date; these are often young wines

Reserva - Reserve- A  Madeira single grape wine that has spent at least 5 years in an oak barrel before bottling

Reserva Velha - Special reserve – A  Madeira single grape wine that has spent at least 10 years in an oak barrel before bottling
Reserva Extra - Extra Reserve – A  Madeira single grape wine that has spent at least 15 years in an oak barrel before bottling

Frasqueira – A  Madeira single grape wine that has spent at least 20 years in an oak barrel before bottling.
The words used to describe Madeira wines:

The wines’ color:
Muito Pálido – very pale; Pálido – Pale; Dourado – Golden; Meio Escuro – Medium Dark; Escuro – Dark.

The wine’s texture:
Leve – Light or pale, Mencão – full Bodied or full,  Fino – Fine or rich; Macio – Soft;  Aveludado – Velvety; Amadurecido – Mellow.
The Madeira Islands:

Madeira is an archipelago, a group of islands. There are two inhabited islands, Madeira and Porto Santo where the Madeira wine grapes grow with  another six small islands that are uninhabited nature reserves. The Madeira Islands are in the North Atlantic with the nearest land being the Spanish Canary Island of Tenerife  490 km  (300 mi) away.  The nearest landmass is Africa with Morocco  788 km, (490 miles) distant. Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, is 967 km, (604 miles) away.


Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2014.

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

Friday, October 10, 2014

Soupe à l'Oignon - French Onion Soup; the Most Famous of all French Soups. The Difference Between Parisian and Lyonnais Onion Soups.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

French onion soup in the manner of Paris.
Photograph courtesy of jeffreyw
Onion soup in the manner of Paris or Lyon?
Paris and Lyon claim the original recipes for French onion soup and the arguments among the residents of the two towns can turn heated.   That, notwithstanding thousands of years before the first printed recipe the first hunter-gatherer in France to throw a wild onion in the cooking pot owns the original French recipe.
The traditional differences between the two onion soups was over the Parisian use of vegetable, chicken or beef stock, or bouillon, and wine or Cognac,  The Lyonnais version used no stock and the alcohol was Madeira wine or Port.  These traditional differences are now often ignored, and so ask your server or maitre’d about the soup on your menu.
You should expect French servers to be knowledgeable. Serving, in France, is a profession with all the attributes of a profession. Tips are not expected nor are they an important part of their income.  Restaurant staffs have salaries, paid vacation time, and 35-hour workweeks, sick leave and pensions. During your stay in France, you may have time to enjoy a real Parisian onion soup and a Lyonnais one as well. 
Your onion soup may be on the menu under one of many names:
Soupe à l”Oignon à la Parisienne, Gratinée Parisienne  or Gratinée des Halles  among the many  names used for onion soup in the tradition of Paris.
Gratinée Lyonnais, Soupe à l'Oignon Lyonnaise or Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinée  among the many names used for onion soup in the tradition of the city of Lyon..

French onion soup in the manner of Lyon.
Photograph courtesy of roboppy.
Today, whether you choose the soup served in a Parisian Bistro or a Lyonnais  Buchon or in a restaurant with Michelin stars, if there is a trained French chef in the kitchen the onion soup should be excellent.  I am a French onion soup junkie, and from experience, both the Parisian and Lyonnais versions make excellent, and sometimes memorable, onion soups; there are no winners or losers. The only differences are the flavors.
When you order your French onion soup expect:
That your soup will come with bubbling or almost bubbling cheese on top of toasted or grilled bread or croutons.  The soup will have been made with white onions, fried until they are a dark golden brown. To the onions, depending on the recipe used may have been added vegetable, chicken or beef stock along with a few herbs at the chef’s discretion.  Added to the stock, in the Parisian manner, will be white or red wine or Cognac and in the Lyonnais manner will be Madeira wine or port. The soup is transferred to individual bowls, and on top will  be added slices of grilled or toasted bread or croutons covered in grated cheese.  Just before serving, the individual bowls are placed under the grill until the cheese  melts. Then by both sight and smell a mouthwatering soup will be put before you. Bon Appétit!
N.B. The term gratinée, when used in connection with French onion soup, indicates that the soup has grilled cheese on top. Most of the other French names without the word gratinée will also have grilled cheese on top, but very occasionally, that is not the case. Check what you are ordering.
About the recipes for French onion soup.

The original and oldest printed French recipe, along with a few purist chefs today, make onion soup without any stock; that is in the original manner of the city of Lyon. Today’ chefs who do not use stock include Raymond Blanc and Paul Bocuse.  However, the majority of recipes that I have seen from today’s French trained, celebrity chefs working outside of France do use stock in the manner of Paris.  Those chefs include Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Michel Roux Jr, Wolfgang Puck and Gordon Ramsay.
The grated cheese used in French onion soup is also another ingredient that may be a source of arguments, though French Gruyere is the cheese used most often. The other cheeses used include Comte AOP, French Emmenthal and Cantal AOP. In the UK and North America I have enjoyed French onion soups where Cheddar was the cheese of choice.
NB French Gruyere cheese has holes, while Swiss does not, or at least not large holes.  French Gruyere is also slightly sweeter than the Swiss.


French onion soup in not difficult to make, it just takes time.
I am not a chef, nor am I a particularly good cook and this is not a cookbook; however, I can cook a reasonably satisfying French onion soup.  I use at least one and a half large onions per person, cooked slowly and carefully until they are golden brown; making sure those onions do not burn is the most time-consuming procedure. Expect a good two hours of watching and turning the onions if you are making French onion soup for ten. One and a half large onions  per person may seem to be overdoing it; however, when the onions are cooked slowly, to that golden brown color, you may be surprised by how little onion is left by the time they are caramelized.

The heart of the matter.
Photograph courtesy of hepp.
 I use vegetable stock to be inclusive for the vegetarians in my family, and I use red wine for flavor and color. I allow the soup to boil on a low flame until the volume is reduced enough to achieve the desired taste and consistency; then, I toast or grill the bread.  If I have forgotten to buy French Gruyere cheese, I use the best yellow cheese at hand with a sprinkling of Parmesan if needed, to give the cheese more flavor. 

Grilling the bread.
Photograph courtesy of The Bazile.
The purist’s recipe for French onion soup.
Paul Bocuse’s French onion soup is the soup of a purist; he uses no stock at all. Onions rule.

Paul Bocuse, without any argument, is certainly the greatest living chef from Lyon, France, and possibly in the whole of France.  I read Paul Bocuse’s English language book: The Cuisine of Paul Bocuse, Grafton Books.   Bocuse’s recipe is onions, butter, a bouquet-garni and a little pepper. To thicken the soup he uses egg yolks along with a small drop of Madeira wine for additional flavor; he uses no stock.  

Paul Bocuse.
Photograph courtesy of WonderfulTime.
Paul Bocuse,  fifty-years ago was among the great chefs who threw out the heavy sauces and warming pans of haute cuisine; he and his friends brought in the freshest produce and no dish was ever warmed up. Those chefs were the founders of Nouvelle Cuisine; now they are the gray-haired establishment.  Besides Bocuse's own three-star restaurant in Lyon he was the force behind the cooking competition that has become the most famous cooking competition in the world, the Bocuse Dor. The international finals of the Bocuse Dor are held bi-annually in Lyon, France.
The history of the Gratinée des Halles.
The Les Halles French onion soup.
Les Halles was Paris’s wholesale fresh produce market, and in the 50’s and 60’s Les Halles was famous for its midnight traffic jams. Parisians and visitors alike travelling to the market caused the jams as they visited its restaurants for their legendary French onion soup; served from midnight until 5.00am. From 5:00 am the restaurants returned to feeding the workers in the market. There is no single Les Halles recipe, but that name on a menu rings the bell of tradition.

The Les Halles produce market is no more.

Les Halles had been Paris’s wholesale produce market for 800 years. However, in the second half of the 20th century, the traffic congestion, not to mention the sanitation problems in the center of the Paris, was unacceptable. In 1971, Paris’s wholesale fresh produce market was moved to the Parisian suburb of Rungis near the Paris-Orly airport. Where Les Halles once stood, there is today an enormous, but in my view not particularly attractive, below ground shopping center, called the Forum des Halles. There is also the Les Halles Metro station and the Châtelet -Les Halles RER train station. That RER station is also the largest underground train station in the world. I wonder why I always stay away from it?

Visiting Rungis, the world’s largest fresh produce market.
For those who wish to visit the Rungis produce market, you may take the Metro line 7  to the end of the line; then take the bus 185 to Rungis Market.   By car from central Paris, it is about half-an-hour outside of rush hour. There are 22 restaurants in the new market, some of which serve onion soup.  Rungis is the largest fresh produce market in the world and offers organized tours for professionals and tourists from 05:00. If you have heard of the Tokyo fish market, Rungis is that plus fruit, vegetables, flowers, meat, poultry, game and more.
The Rungis English language web site is:

Rungis market at 5am.  
Photograph courtesy of pbovigny 

The oldest recipe for French Onion Soup.
While onion soup recipes have been published since the times of the Roman empire, French Onion soup is a different matter. The oldest recipe I have seen is in a book written by Alexander Dumas Père, the author  of The Count of Monte Christo and The Three Musketeers, among many many other books.
Alexander Dumas Pere was also a passionate Gourmet and he wrote two books on French cuisine.  The larger of the two is Dumas’s Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine.  That book has been translated into English in an excellent, concise version called Dumas on Food by Alan and Jane Davidson, printed by Oxford University Press. Dumas on Food gives, in English, Alexandre Dumas’s recipe for Soupe à l’Oignon à la Stanislas and the story behind its fame. The Stanislas noted in that recipe is the same Stanislas Leszczynski, Duke of Lorraine and Bar, France,ex-King of Poland, father-in-law of King Louis XV of France who gave Rum Baba and a number of other dishes their name.   
The National Library of France, Biblotech National de France allows you to read, without charge, the unabridged, original, French version of Dumas’s  Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine  online; it comes in two parts. You may also download the 1,000 plus pages that are the whole book, in PDF format, for a minuscule payment.

The cover of the original Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine.
Alexander Dumas Père.
Photograph courtesy of the Biblotech National de France.
The Biblotech National de France website, with English instructions, can be reached at 
For for the paragraphs on Soupe à l’Oignon à la Stanislas click on or copy and paste the link below in your browser:

Then enter page 764 and you may read about Soupe à l’Oignon a la Stanislas as well as other onion soups that pleased Alexander Dumas Père.

 The search for the absolute onion soup.

A great Soupe a l‘Oignon can be an existential experience.  Following on that, on more than one occasion, I have covered Paris from arrondissement to arrondissement looking for the absolute onion soup; while dragging my family around Paris with me. I believe that once I nearly found that soup, but it still escaped me. One day I will find that  absolute onion soup and then my soul will be content; in the meantime, I continue looking for it in Paris and Lyon with tastings in many other parts of the world.

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Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2014.
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

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