It’s a French restaurant classic and unlike a lot of French dishes, it’s actually very easy to make. French onion soup is simply a rich broth with slow-cooked onions, topped with a layer of melted cheese and served with croutons or a slice of bread. The history of the soup says a lot about how food brings people together.
The origins of onion soup
Onion soup has been around since ancient Rome. Onions are one of the easiest crops to grow, and they have always been cheap, so everyone from the poor to the rich ate them. As for onion soup in France, there are a few stories. One tells of how Nicolas Appert, the inventor of canning, met the Duke of Lorraine at a hotel. Appert prepared an onion soup. The duke loved it so much that he went into the kitchen and watched Appert’s method, so he could replicate it. In 1831, Appert released a cookbook and dedicated the onion soup to the duke.
The other legend involves King Louis XV. After a day of hunting, the king went home and discovered all he had was butter, onions, and champagne. He and his great-aunt improvised, and threw everything together, cooked it down, and realized they had made something amazing. This story seems a bit less likely, though because onion soup is so simple, it wouldn’t be surprising if the king and many others accidentally ended up making it.
Gettin’ cheesy with it
The French onion soup we know, with its cheesy top, likely came out of the famous Les Halles market. King Philippe-Auguste founded it in 1135, and it became so popular, it actually began to encroach into a cemetery. They built a wall, but the smell was so bad that people began to believe the soil there was somehow blessed (or cursed) with flesh-eating soil that made bodies decay faster. After enduring the filth for centuries, the city finally moved the bones into the catacombs in the 19th-century, and the 25-acre market finally came into its own. The restaurants surrounding the market were the ones that came up with broiling cheese on top of simple, cheap onion soup. It was so good that everyone came to eat it, from the very poor to the very rich. French onion soup broke down class boundaries.
The soup also developed a reputation for being an amazing hangover cure. This continues to this day, and it’s not uncommon to be offered French onion soup at a wedding after the cake has been served. While the science behind it isn’t especially solid, onions are one of the healthiest vegetables you can eat, and the salt can help replace lost electrolytes.
Want to make it yourself?
For a classic French onion soup recipe, let’s turn to Jacques Pepin, who has a very simple method. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a big saucepan, and add 3 sliced onions. You want to cook them on medium-high for 10 minutes until golden-brown. Pour in 7 cups of water (he uses water instead of stock), and add ½ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of black pepper. Bring to a simmer and then to a light boil, and maintain for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400-degrees, and toast 16 slices of sliced baguette. Put 1-2 slices of bread into four oven-safe crocks and add ¼ cup of grated gruyere to each one. Put the crocks on a cookie sheet and pour in even amounts of the soup. Top with more gruyere and bake for 35-45 minutes to get the cheese really toasted. Delicious!
Cheese and soup go together, but what about cheese in tea? This trend started in Asia, and has made its way stateside.