Grim's Grub: When life gives you onions ... take credit!
The completely untrue stories of the origin of French Onion Soup
Many Minnesota hunters have been there.
You return from the cold outdoors to your home or your hunting shack. You're starving. You're cold. You need a hot dinner.
That's the position France's King Louis XV was supposedly in one day. He was an avid hunter, so much so that art from his time depicts the king and a retinue of retainers doing just such a pastime. He had learned to love the hunt from Duke Francois de Villeroy after going to live with the 73-year-old man when the king was merely 7 years old.
Louis was, coincidentally, hunting during the start of many historical events. He was in the field when he received note of the death of Emperor Charles VI of Austria. Perhaps because hunting put him in a good mood, Louis made many retainers angry by deciding to do nothing against the on-again off-again enemy nation.
Louis was also returning from a hunt when he met his most famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Even on his death bed in 1774, he demanded being allowed to hunt, though he did so from the comfort of a carriage.
It is no doubt that the king loved to hunt, but that's not the part of the story that rings untrue. It was after a strenuous hunt, possibly of deer or some other game, that Louis found he and his retainers inside of a hunting shack, hungry. What was he to do but storm the kitchen himself.
The king found only butter, onions and champagne.
He began by melting the butter, sauteing the thinly sliced onion and then drowning it in champagne. If the tale is true, that was literally all there was to cook with, and that was all the king needed to invent the delicious simplicity of French onion soup.
We can ignore the obvious flaws in this story. The king, presumably a pretty wealthy guy, not only failed to bring a side of pork or beef to camp, but also failed to bag a single pheasant or deer in his hunting journey.
Let's also ignore the fact that the king seemed to forget his retinue of cooks like a busy man forgets his house keys.
It's hard to ignore, however, that Louis, who became king in 1715 at age 5, somehow had access to a time machine with which he went back to 1651 to publish the recipe. That was the year some famous versions of the recipe became widely available.
Author Alexandre Dumas gives credit to Stanislas Leszczynski, Duke of Lorraine, deposed king of Poland and father of the Queen of France. for sampling the tasty dish at the Champagne Inn. Leszczynski enjoyed the soup so much he refused to leave the inn until he could make it himself.
Dumas says the royal stood in his nighttime robes and watched the chefs cook a batch in front of him in the middle of the night so he could memorize the process.
The tale says he introduced this version to the Palace of Versailles. This version of the recipe contains milk as both a thickening agent and instead of broth. Here, Leszczynski did not invent the dish, but instead introduced this particular variety to the palace.
This is a less extreme claim, and certainly easier to swallow; however, it is still chronologically challenged. French onion soup recipes from the palace precede the time at which Leszczynski introduced it.
One of the earliest French onion soup recipes is from the cookbook "Viandier" by Taillevent, which hails from the 14th century. Like other versions, this recipe requires a long, slow saute of pungent onions in butter. The broth is then made with one of two types of liquid: pea puree, or water and verjus.
Verjus is wine that has begun turning to vinegar, but has not completely turned. One can imagine that in a time when eating meat was a pastime almost exclusive to royalty, it would be hard to pinpoint an inventor of a soup consisting only of sauteed vegetables floating in water or spoiled wine. Cabbage soup prepared the same way was very popular.
Of course, this soup did not come close to hitting its pinnacle in this basic form. It wasn't until someone decided to combine this onion-water soup with crusty bread and melted cheese that it became the delight it is today.
At one point, the layering was inverted. Going back, it used to be that a crusty piece of bread and Gruyere cheese were placed in the bottom, and the soup was poured over, likely to better melt the cheese in the days before broilers.
Eventually that bowl was virtually turned on end, and now you have a dish so good the French royal family once tried to take credit for it.
Alexandre Dumas' Soupe à l’Oignon à la Stanislas
- Pieces of bread
- Boiling water
Toast the bread and butter. Onions are to be fried until they are a nice, slightly dark blond, then crusts are added while the onions are stirred. Continue to stir until the onions brown, then add boiling water, then season with salt and pepper.
Alexandre Dumas had several recipes for various versions of onion soup, including Vuillemot Onion Soup in which buttered bread is placed in the bottom of a soup tureen, the soup is poured over and Gruyere is served on the side.
French Onion Soup
Courtesy of Marcy Nickel, coworker!
- 2 pounds onions, halved and thinly sliced
- 2 cloves chopped garlic
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon thyme
- 1/4 cup butter or bacon grease
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons flour
- 3/4 cup dry red wine
- 4 cups beef broth
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 baguette
- 1/2 pound Gruyere, more for serving if you like it cheesy
Melt the butter or bacon grease in a 4-5 quart pot over medium heat. Stir in the onions and allow them to cook briefly, until they begin to turn transparent around the edges, then add the garlic, bay leaves, thyme and salt, constantly stirring. Cook until the onions are very soft and a deep, golden brown, about 30-45 minutes.
Deglaze the pan with wine, scraping any darkened bits (fond) off the bottom. Stir for about five minutes until the wine has mostly evaporated. Remove the bay leaves.
Add the flour and cook into a pasty roux, about one minute. Stir in the broth, water and pepper and then bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.
When ready to serve, preheat the broiler in your oven and arrange the baguette slices on a baking sheet in a single layer. Sprinkle the slices with the Gruyere and broil until bubbly and golden brown, 3-5 minutes.
Ladle the soup into bowls and float several gruyere slices on top. Sprinkle with additional Gruyere if you choose.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.