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Friday, October 10, 2014

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

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated April 2018
French onion soup in the manner of Paris.
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 were 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. If you have time during your stay in Franceenjoy a real Parisian onion soup and a Lyonnais one as well
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 of 42 days, and 35-hour workweeks, sick leave, and pensions. 
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.
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:
Your soup will be served with bubbling or almost bubbling cheese on top of toasted or grilled bread or croutons.  The heart of the dish is 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, browned, when used in connection with French onion soup, indicates that the soup has grilled cheese on top. All dishes with the word gratinée will have been browned under the grill usually with the help of grated cheese or buttered breadcrumbs,
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.
N.B. French Gruyere cheese has some small holes while Swiss does not. However, French Gruyere is not the cheese famed for its many holes, that is Emmenthal.

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 cheese if needed, to give the cheese more flavor. 
Toasted baguette ready for the soup.
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.
Paul Bocuse, who passed away in 2017 was, fifty years ago, among the 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 important 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 traveling 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 website is:

A stall in Rungis market
The oldest recipe for the modern version of 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 the paragraphs on Soupe à l’Oignon à la Stanislas click on or copy and paste the link below in your browser:
The link above will bring you to page 764 and you may read about Soupe à l’Oignon a la Stanislas, with the recipe on the next page (765) 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:
Rum Baba or Baba au Rhum, What is a Savarin or Savarin au Rhum?

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Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
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