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.

Connected Posts:

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For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

Friday, September 26, 2014

Sète (Sete) and its Cuisine. Sète is the Largest Fishing Port on France’s Mediterranean Coast.

                                                     Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

The central canal in Sète.
Photograph courtesy of  C. sabin paul pictures.
For the visitor, Sète is an attractive and walkable town, and with its canals also called the Venice of Languedoc; its cuisine includes Provencal and Italian input along with local creations.
Where is Sète
Sète is on the Mediterranean coast in the department of Hérault in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon. It is 31 km from Montpellier, the regional capital, 20 minutes by train and 40 minutes by car. For those who may be travelling along the Mediterranean Coast, Sète  is two hours and a quarter hours  by car from Marseilles, 2 hours by train. In the opposite direction from Sete to Perpignan is 143 km (89 miles) by road,  one and a half hours by car or train; then from Perpignan to the Spanish border is  another 29 km (18 miles).
Sète  and the Thau Basin.
 Sète is also called the capital of the Bassin or Étang de Thau. This inland basin, sometimes called a lake, which it is not, is a gigantic center for fishing and  the fish and seafood farming industry; it runs inland parallel to the Mediterranean coast. All of the fish and seafood on Sète’s restaurant tables come from this basin or from Sète's ocean-going fishermen and women. The Thau Basin is twenty km (13 miles) long and 3 km (2 miles) wide. On the Mediterranean side of the basin are fabulous beaches, and around the basin are striking fishing villages and others that are now centers for water sports;  just a little to the North is the Languedoc wine country.

Map of theThau Basin.
Copyright Google Maps 2014.
Dining in Sète
There is probably a Sétoise version or a Sétoise recipe for every fish and seafood dish in the south of France.  Wandering around the town I have seen menus offering Sétoise versions of Bouillabaisse and Sétoise takes on other Provencal dishes. During my two and a half-day sojourn, I did not receive one meal or even a snack that was below excellent. 

Sète  fishing port
Photograph courtesy of Szymon Stoma.


When talking to locals and  the servers in restaurants, they all claimed that most local dishes either came with Italian immigrants or are Italian tweaks to local dishes. More about the Italian influence later. The majority of dishes on the menus of Sète’s fish and seafood restaurant menus are well known in the south of France.
Consider some of the Sétoise specialties on the menu:
Bourride de Lotte à la Sètois -  Bourride de Lotte is a traditional Provencal monkfish stew, and monkfish are one of the tastiest sea fish with a very firm texture. Sète’s  Bourride is a creamy stew of monkfish and vegetables all flavored with white wine and  aioli, the garlicky mayonnaise of the south of France.  The stew  is served with more  aioli on the side.
Monkfish in the language of France’s neighbors. (German -  seeteufel ), (Italian – martino, rospo, rana pescatrice),  (Spanish – rap, rape, rape blanco,  xuliana ),

The fishing port of Sete.
Photograph courtesy of YannGarPhoto
La Teille Sétoise – A traditional poulpe, octopus, pie claimed as their own by the residents of  Sète with Italian heritage. The original octopus pie is now also made with calmar, squid, or seiche, cuttlefish. Whether the pie is made with octopus or its surrogates, it will be seafood in a pie with tomatoes and onions all flavored with garlic and rosemary.  This is a traditional sétoise street food that has now made it to the big time and is on many restaurant menus.  In restaurants, the pie is served as entrée, the French starter, with individual pies often accompanied by a small green salad.
Octopus in the language of France’s neighbors: (German – gemeiner krake), (Italian-polpo), (Spanish -pulpo),
Squid in the languages of France’s neighbors: (German -  sepia or tintenfisch), (Italian – seppoe, calamaio), (Spanish - jibia or sepia).
Cuttlefish in the languages of France’s neighbors:
German -  sepia or tintenfisch), (Italian – seppoe, calamaio), (Spanish - jibia or sepia),

Fish in the  Sète market.
Photograph courtesy of hirondellecanada.
Les Encornets Farcis à la Sétoise – Small squid stuffed in the manner of Sète.  Setoise stuffing always includes pork sausage meat, sometimes with added veal, along with breadcrumbs and tomatoes.  The flavoring comes with spicy pepper, garlic, dry white wine, sometimes Cognac and the herb group the Herbs of Provence.  The dish may also be made with Sète’s beloved aioli  in the recipe or served on the side.

 A plate of Bouzigye Oysters  farmed in the Thau basin.
Photograph courtesy of Astacus.
Moules Farcies à la Sétoise Mussels, from the Thau Basin,  stuffed in the manner of Sète. The mussels are stuffed with sausage meat and cooked in white wine and tomato puree.  The mussels will be served with the ever present aioli  on top. As you begin to enjoy aioli, you will find that this is a really excellent dish that should not be missed.
Blue mussels in the languages of France’s neighbors: (German – miesmuschel or pfahlmuschel), (Italian – cozza or mitilo), (Spanish - moule commune or mejillón).

A canal in Sète.
Photograph courtesy of Maria Hobl.
Macaronade à la Sétoise   - Macaronade in the manner of Sète. The Sète Macaronade is made with beef, sometimes with Sétoise versions of Italian brajoles, which are stuffed meat rolls, bacon, tomatoes and onions; all flavored with red wine, parsley and  paprika.  To accompany the dish will be grated Parmesan or gruyere cheese.

Apart from a macronade de boeuf or a Macaronade à la Sétoise  elsewhere in France most other macronades will, as the name suggests, be dishes made with macaroni; when it is not clear ask.
Soupe de Poisson de Roche à la Sétoise  - A fish soup favorite all along  France’s Mediterranean coast. The Sétoise version is made with small fish that are caught in, or near, the criques, creeks, along the coast of Sète. The soup is flavored with garlic, and aioli,  and served with an aioli flavored rouille sauce on the side.  Rouille is traditionally a thick sauce served in and alongside most fish soups in the South of France. They will have many different tastes; in Sète the accent is on the aioli.
NB The dish called Rouille à la Sétoise  is not a sauce,  rather it is a stew of cuttlefish.
  The wines around Sète
The wines of the Coteaux du Languedoc cover a vast area, and it is one of the largest appellations in France. From the Coteaux du Languedoc came the wines that I chose for my fish and seafood dishes.  The wines I chose I had not seen elsewhere, and I enjoy trying different wines in new places; with the occasional exception, local wines  make a very pleasant change. 
Picpoule de Pinet.
Photograph courtesy of Fareham Wine.
The first wine I selected was a Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul-de-Pinet  AOC/AOP. It is a white wine from the area around the town of Castelnau-de-Guers,  just 21 km  (14 miles) from Sète. I knew nothing about this wine and chose it for its interesting name, Picpoul-de-Pinet;  I did not regret my choice, it was fruity and dry white. If I did not have a problem with that 20 kilo limit on flights, I would have taken a case home.
The second wine was a white Coteaux du Languedoc Mas-Jullien  AOP.  It was an excellent dry white that went  perfectly with the highly flavored fish dishes of Sète.
A short history of Sète.
The incredibly active Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s Prime Minister decided to build a canal that would join the Atlantic, at Bordeaux, to the Mediterranean.  Sète would be built at the canal's exit to the Mediterranean as a large fishing port and an inland port.  In the 17th century, the canal would save four weeks of sailing around Spain to the north of France, and the occasional battles with pirates from North Africa. Good roads connecting France from North to South hardly existed and in winter whatever there was became impassable.   At the time, there was an island called Cette just off the mainland, and in creating the largest fishing port in the Mediterranean the island was joined to the mainland. Today you would not realize that part of the town is an island, but having the fishing port in the center of town makes walking around a unique experience. The town itself has many canals, after all it is called the Venice of Languedoc, so when visiting Sète take a motorboat tour of the canals; alas they have no gondolas.  Before it was joined to the mainland the island’s first known name was given 2,500 years ago when the Greeks came and called it Ketos. Later it would  become Ceta, Seta, Cetia and Cette, and finally  in 1928  the city became  Sète.
A canal in Sète.
Photograph courtesy of Salvatore.Freni.
The canal, which opened in 1681, allowed the whole region to export goods to Paris and the North of France, and of the greatest importance was wheat.  Today the canal is no longer used for trade, but you can rent a motor boat with full sleeping and cooking equipment, showers, toilets and more. Then, on your own, with one hour's instruction, you may sail from Sète to Bordeaux on the Atlantic. If you prefer you may sail in the opposite direction from Sete along the Canal du Rhone inland, close to the Mediterranean, to the town of Aigues Mortes and then up to Beaucaire,  just 25 km (16 miles) below Avignon. These motor boats allow you to stop and get out and tour or dine whenever the thought arises.
 The Italian Influence.
Linked to the building of the fishing port and the canal were many Italian craftsmen and workers who afterwards stayed to put their imprint on the city and its cuisine. Today in Sète you will see or meet many people with Italian surnames, a reminder that the original  work force included many Italians. They together with more Italian immigrants who came in the 1800’s, makes for a French  city  that today has half of the population with Italian heritage. Along with the Italians came many French Catalans and then later came immigrants from Morocco and Algeria. Today the port of Sète has ferries to Italy including Sicily and Sardinia, Spain including the Balearic Islands and Morocco.
Sète is much more than just a city with excellent restaurants, canals and a pleasant place to  walk around, it also provides entertainment for its residents and tourists.  In the summer, apart from concerts and celebrations of all kinds from June through September  you may watch the Sète joutes. Joutes are jousts, but without knights riding against each other on horseback; rather here the jousting knights are Sète fishermen and other locals. For the joust there are two boats, each with ten rowers who pull to meet each other as fast as they can. On each boat is a high platform with a jouster holding a lance and a shield. When they meet, the winner will have knocked his opponent into the sea!  If you are in the area  in the summer call the Tourist Information Office and find the exact days and times when they are holding their joutes.  They are held on nearly every weekend and once or twice a week during the summer months. The English language website of the Sète Tourist Information Office is:

Sea jousts in  Sète.
Photograph courtesy of maths41photo.
Outside of Sète
After visiting Sète there is still much to see outside the town;  Sète is on the edge of the  beautiful Étang de Thau, and on its own that is reason enough to visit the area.
For more about the Étang de Thau, the Thau basin, look at the English language website of the town of Marseillan which is in the north of the Thau Basin: 
Connected Posts:
Soup on the French Menu. A Soup by Any Other Name, but France has So Many Names for Soup. 

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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