Behind the French Menu gives a tasty background to French cuisine, French dishes, how they are made and how they should be served.
Where there is a story behind a dish's creation and
that story may aid the diner's enjoyment then that will also be included. Bon appétit!
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
Your onion soup may be on the menu under
one of many names:
Soupe à l”Oignon à la
Parisienne, Gratinée Parisienneor Gratinée
des Hallesamong the manynames used
for onion soup in the tradition of Paris.
Soupe à l'Oignon Lyonnaise or Soupe à l'Oignon Gratinéeamong the many names
used for onion soup in the tradition of the city of Lyon..
onion soup in the manner of Lyon.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
heart of the matter.
courtesy of hepp.
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.
courtesy of The Bazile.
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.
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.
history of the Gratinée des Halles.
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.
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
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.
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 Cuisineonline; 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.
cover of the original Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine.
courtesy of the Biblotech National de France.
The Biblotech National de France website,
with English instructions, can be reached at http://gallica.bnf.fr.
For for the paragraphson 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.
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
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, Sèteis two hours and a quarter hoursby 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 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, andaround 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
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.
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:
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’sBourride is
a creamy stew of monkfish and vegetables all flavored with white wine andaioli, the garlicky mayonnaise of the south
of France.The stewis served with moreaioli on the side.
Monkfish in the language of France’s
neighbors. (German -
seeteufel ), (Italian – martino, rospo, rana pescatrice), (Spanish – rap, rape, rape blanco, xuliana ),
fishing port of Sete.
courtesy of YannGarPhoto
Teille Sétoise – A traditional poulpe,
octopus, pie claimed as their own by the residents ofSète 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
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
German -sepia or tintenfisch), (Italian – seppoe, calamaio), (Spanish - jibia or
the Sète market.
courtesy of hirondellecanada.
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
aioliin the recipe or served on the
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 aiolion 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
courtesy of Maria Hobl.
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 andpaprika.To accompany the dish will be grated Parmesan
or gruyere cheese.
Apart from a macronade de boeuf or a Macaronade à la Sétoiseelsewhere 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
Sétoiseis 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.
The first wine I selected was
a Coteaux du Languedoc Picpoul-de-PinetAOC/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
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 fourweeks 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 wouldbecome
Ceta, Seta, Cetia and Cette, and finallyin 1928the city becameSète.
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 Frenchcitythat 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 inSète.
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 thebeautiful 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: