A humble soup with royal origins

I cannot imagine my kitchen without onions. They are the easiest ingredient to add flavour and depth to so many dishes. Start sautéing an onion and everyone who enters your house will comment how good it smells. Nevertheless onions don’t always get the credit they deserve. For many years onions were known as poor man’s food because are easy to grow, available-year round and usually inexpensive. Despite their somewhat shady reputation onions are a staple in my kitchen.

I love the variety of different onions that you can find in French markets in various seasons.

Each variety has it own use. The most common onion is the yellow onion, which is available all year round. I use yellow onions almost everyday when cooking. I like them sautéed, cooked, filled or in small quantities even raw. White onions are fresh onions that are actually picked before they are ripe. They cannot be stored as long as other varieties. Their taste is a little sweeter and subtler and they are a better choice if you want to use raw onion. Red onions add colour and flavour to a dish. They are much sweeter than yellow onions and are delicious caramelized because of their texture. Shallots are a crossing of onions and garlic. Shallots are smaller than onions and have a more subtle flavour. Shallots are mainly used as condiment. I like to caramelize them for a chutney to accompany foie gras for example. Since a couple of years the French have started taking their onions even more seriously. There are now actually several varieties that are protected by an Appellation Controlée. Just like a wine from an Appelation Controlée, when you buy an onion from an Appellation Controlée you are sure to buy the exact variety from the exact region. One of the most well known examples is the Oignon de Roscoff, beautiful pink, firm onions that are sold in an elegant tress of several bulbs. Roscoff onions have a delicate fruity flavour and will melt away when you sauté them. They are very good to use in most sauces.

I’ve heard a myth that King Louis XV came up with the recipe French Onion Soup while he was out hunting. Coming home tired and sore from the long day he was in need of a little pick-me-up. Rummaging through the storage room of his hunting lodge all he could find were butter, onions and wine. With these ingredients he made the first French Onion Soup – according to the legend-. From there on the recipe has evolved to a more luxury version with a gratineed crouton on top. I like to use a mixture of blue cheese and Old Gouda Cheese to top the crouton. The salty flavours of these cheeses contrast nicely with the sweetness of the caramelized onions.

Onion soup is not a very refined dish so I wouldn’t opt for a very refined and subtle wine. The wine should also be able to balance the flavours of saltiness and sweetness in the dish. Stay away from your well-aged cellar treasures from coveted vintages. I would opt for a fruity and younger wine. For example a fruity Pinot Noir like a Beaujolais. The hint of sweetness in the soup will bring out the fruity flavours of the Pinot Noir and the subtle acidity of the wine will balance things out. A young Cotes du Rhone will also work well. And if you want to opt for Bordeaux pick a nice Cote de Bergerac or a Bordeaux Supérieur from a recent vintage. Again, it is a simple dish, so don’t break the bank and stay away from the Crus Classés.
A bowl of hearty onion soup is a great lunch dish. If you serve the soup with a cheeseboard and a salad it can be a meal in itself.

French Onion Soup

100g (3,5 oz.)of butter
500g (1 lb.) onions
250g (0,5 lb.) shallots
1 clove of garlic
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 glass of red wine (preferably the same wine you will drink with this soup)
1 tablespoon of flour
1,5 liter (50 fl.oz.) of stock (beef, lamb or vegetable) (home made or from a cube)
1 French loaf or baguette
100 g (3,5 oz.) Old Gouda Cheese
100 g (3,5 oz.) Blue cheese for example Bleu d’Auvergne

Slice onions and shallots in fine rings.
Melt the butter in a heavy pan. Once the butter is melted add the onions and shallots. Let this color a little over a medium heat. Add a tablespoon of sugar to caramelize the onions and provide color then add the sliced cloves of garlic. Continue to sauté this for a few minutes and stir in the wine.
Put the lid on and let this simmer for about 20 minutes. Add the flour and stir. Let the flour cook for a minute and then add your hot stock while stirring. Put the lid back on and let the soup simmer for another 20 minutes, giving the occasional stir. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
In the meantime you can start on your cheese croutons. Slice the French loaf and roast the slices on both sides under a hot grill.
Grate or slice the cheeses and cover each toast with a generous amount of cheese. Just before the soup is ready place the cheese croutons under a hot grill until the cheese melts and bubbles. Spoon the soup in deep plates or bowls and place a cheese crouton on top.

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