I totally want to call this the “ultimate guide to French Onion soup,” but it sounds a little crazy to bestow such a heavy name on such a simple soup. So, I am going to share what it is (mon Dieu, does anyone really not know what it is??!!), the history, how to make it (French onion soup recipes for traditional, vegetarian and vegan), and, of course (bien sûr), where to find it in Paris! Why? Well, this soup is the ultimate comfort food, particularly in cold rainy weather.
Heck. After a year like 2020, we need a giant vat of it!
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The History of The Less-Than-Humble French Onion Soup
It’s unlikely that you’ve lived this long without hearing about French onion soup. And no, not just because it’s absolutely delicious. But because it is fairly mainstream considering it is on the menu for lots of large franchise restaurants, most Americans have had at least one bowl of it in their life, even if they don’t eat it as frequently as they ought to.
This bowl of yummy goodness has a gloriously rich history too.
There’s nothing quite like a warm, hearty broth with onions, toasted bread or croutons, and a load of cheese — especially after a big night out. Most people can relate to this but Parisians swear by it to cure their hangovers. Hence why the French onion soup became such a big deal to almost the entire world.
The idea of soup — i.e. a basic water and onion mix — dates back to prehistoric times. But, there are two theories as to the origination of the French onion variant. Of course, I’m going to go over both of them (admittedly, I’ll focus more on the second theory since this is the one more widely accepted).
The First Theory – Cheese, please
Of course, onion soup is ancient. A simple soup made from water and onion with stale bread tossed in, that is a poor man’s meal that has been around for centuries. The oldest [documented] version of the soup dates back to the middle of the 17 century, but that soup was “just” a broth of onions and the dried bread with a hit of acid from either capers or vinegar. But there was no cheese (which some would argue is essential).
We have to wait until the 19th century when Stanislas Leszczyński (who was Marie Leszczyńska (the queen of France’s) father, the former king of Poland, and the current Duke of Lorraine) discovered the traditional French onion soup while on his way to Versailles. During his trip, he stopped at an inn called La Pomme d’Or. This inn was in the Champagne region and the chef was the one-and-only Nicolas Appert. For those of you who aren’t sure why that is a big deal, Monsieur Appert is the man who invented canned food. (There are plenty of things invented in France which would surprise you! Like the hairdryer, the bikini, and more!)
Anyway, Stanislas became instantly enticed by the smell coming from the kitchen in the inn. He asked to watch Nicolas Appert prepare the dish he was making. And voilà, the French onion soup was born. He shared the recipe – which included the addition of the all-important cheese with friends and family and the rest is history. Monsieur Appert later included it in a recipe book in 1831 and named it after the duke.
I like this theory because a traveler discovered French onion soup!
Now, let’s move onto the second theory which has more merit placed on it, so you can decide which one you believe.
The Second Theory – Les Halles
As I mentioned previously, Parisians swear by French onion soup for curing their hangovers. Well, this tradition may well have started back in the year 1135 when Les Halles market was founded. Les Halles is the ancestor of Rungis, the biggest food market in Paris (well, actually, the biggest food market in the world) which is technically located outside of Paris (The 1970s saw it move to Rungis near the Orly airport.). (It used to be impossible to visit, closed to the public, but now you can take a tour!) The area of Les Halles still exists in Paris as a major shopping area in the 1st arrondissement (check out what else is in this arrondissement, considered the heart of Paris, although according to the famous French author Emile Zola, it is the belly).
But I digress!
King Philippe-Auguste founded the aforementioned food market, Les Halles, in 1135. Originally, it was a quaint yet basic outdoor food market. However, that didn’t last for very long. It rapidly grew in popularity — and thus, size. Because of the unexpected growth, they had to build a wall between the market and the nearby Saint Innocents Cemetry.
Sadly, the wall wasn’t quite enough.
It’s said that, while the food market kept expanding and gaining in popularity, the cemetery became putrid. Rumor had it that it developed “flesh-eating” soil. This made anybody that was buried there, decay in a few weeks.
By the time the 18th century rolled around, Louis-Sébastien Mercier had a different opinion on this apparently magical cemetery. He believed that the cemetery was actually damaging the health and overall welfare of the entire neighborhood. According to him, all the food was spoiling in people’s houses within a few hours.
In other words, the cemetery was causing a lot of people to go hungry.
When the 19th century hit, the city was forced to do something that the majority of people these days would find abhorrent — move the bones. Yep, the cemetery had to up sticks and move to the Catacombs (which you can visit and hear the history about while staying in Paris). This meant there was enough space for the food market, Les Halles, to expand. (By the way, here are some great photos of the market you can find on Flashbak.)
The market continued growing and finally took up around 25 acres. Yep, it was massive! It ended up being the go-to place for people from all over. Everyone from the rich to the poor was pulled towards this thriving pantry-like market. As you might imagine, not everyone could afford everything that was sold at the market.
Generally, Paris’s poorest people would participate in harlequins. These were plates filled with leftover food from banquets (hmm, might that be the original doggy bag and why there has been such a stigma (pre-COVID) around takeout?). They got this name from being multi-colored thanks to the layers of foods piled on. The main courses, starters, and desserts were put onto a single platter and given to those who could afford this and nothing else.
However, if you could afford to pay a bit more for your market delicacies, you visited one of the soup sellers. You’d receive a piping hot cup of soup that was, to tell you the truth, pretty watery. The color was wonderfully rich though thanks to the burned onions or carrots.
And that is the second theory! Soups made in France have relied on onion soup as its flavor backbone for years. Because of this, it is really hard to figure out precisely when the French onion soup we all know and love came into being. The possibility that onion soup was a “thing” before both these theories is far more likely.
To be totally honest, it does not matter when French onion soup came into being. It definitely gained popularity thanks to the recipe that vendors on the Les Halles market and the surrounding restaurants (namely Chez Baratte and Pied de Cochon) used.
You’re probably wondering “what did they do differently?” Well, they added the main event — gratinée.
What Is Gratinée?
Onion soup — in other words, the soup of the poor — was traditionally made with a simple broth, onions, bread, and beef jus. However, the higher-class restaurants around the market added a load of grated cheese and popped the bowls under a broiler. This created the much-loved Gratinée des Halles or French onion soup.
Before the move to Rungis, manual laborers working the market and surrounding area would eat this soup for breakfast (so not necessarily your typical French breakfast). In addition, it was used as a hangover cure for those who had a fun night at the various cabarets in Paris. Gratinée des Halles is seemingly an elixir for all, regardless of your class and social status.
Restaurants that used to serve French onion soup in the early hours for those going home from an amazing night out and those just starting work, started to open at regular times and serve meals during the day instead.
No matter, French onion soup is still just as brilliant, regardless of the time of day you eat it. And, you can still find it on Pied de Cochon’s menu, attracting tourists and locals alike.
Where to get the best French Onion Soup in Paris
By now, you’ve got the gist of French onion soup. You just need to head to Paris to try some (don’t worry, I don’t blame you!). Here are a few of the best places to get French onion soup or Gratinée des Halles.
Au Pied De Cochon – the original
Yep, by far the best place to try this Parisian delicacy is Au Pied De Cochon, the restaurant where it all started. To this day, it’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week so you can get your fill whether it’s 4 in the morning or 4 in the afternoon. Its menu is centered around everything pig (you even get a pig-shaped pink macaron with your bill at the end!).
What I love about this restaurant is that despite its long history and tourist attraction status, the food is actually good, meaning not overrated, although I do think it is overpriced. They do stay true to the French onion soup recipe they use it’s tried and tested. Having said this, it’s worth noting that some chefs working at this restaurant don’t always get it quite right. At times, it’s a little oily.
Location in Paris: 6 Rue Coquillière (1st arrondissement).
Other great locations to get French Onion Soup
- Au Père Louis, 38 Rue Monsieur le Prince (6th arrondissement)
- Bistrot des Vosges, 31 Boulevard Beaumarchais (4th arrondissement)
- Brasserie Flottes, 2 Rue Cambon (1st arrondissement)
- Centre Vavin, 18 Rue Vavin (6th arrondissement)
- La Rotonde, 105 Boulevard du Montparnasse (6th arrondissement)
- Le Bouillon Pigalle, 22 boulevard de Clichy (18th arrondissement)
- Le Terminus Nord, 23 rue de Dunkerque (10th arrondissement)
French Onion Soup Recipe – How to Make it at Home
This soup is simple and pretty easy to make. I am not a recipe blogger so I am going to share a few of the recipes that I have tried, but first just to illustrate how simple the soup is, let me list the ingredients!
French Onion Soup Ingredients:
- LOTS of yellow onions. They shrink when they carmelize.
- Beef stock.
- Bread or croutons.
A word on the cheese. If you are going for the full French version of this recipe you would use Comté as it is French cheese. If you don’t care then you can use the Swiss version, Gruyère. In addition, I’ve seen it made with another Swiss cheese, Emmental. In the U.S. a lot of people use “Swiss” cheese, a mild cheese (not necessarily from Switzerland) with holes in it.
Favorite French Onion Soup Recipes
- The mother of all classics! Julia Child & Jacques Pepin – French Onion Soup. (I love Julia!)
- The Modern Proper
- Damn Delicious
- My friend Christina’s Cucina
Making a vegetarian French Onion Soup
Making a vegetarian version of French onion soup is EASY, all you have to do is change out the beef stock for vegetable stock. All the other ingredients are vegetarian-friendly.
Love & Lemons have a great vegetarian recipe if you need some guidance.
Making a vegan French Onion Soup
For a vegan French onion soup, the substitutions are pretty straight forward. Olive oil for butter (you can use vegan butter of course); veggie broth, vegan cheese, and vegan French bread (recipe from Holy Cow Vegan). I think when you are doing a vegan version that fresh thyme is super important.
Simple Veganista has a wonderful recipe if you need guidance.
So that’s it. More than you ever wanted to know about a very simple soup. I am guessing you are a little like me so you are fascinated by the origins of food. I think with the speed of life these days that we don’t always take the time to reflect on what we are eating, to savor the ingredients and appreciate the history. We all enjoy comfort food, and it is comforting for a reason.
I like the definition that Wikipedia provides:
Comfort food is a kind of food that nostalgic or sentimental value to someone, and may be characterized by its high caloric nature, high carbohydrate level, or simple preparation.
French onion soup is simple and has high nostalgia-value for me. As a Francophile, I love its rich history, I can appreciate its roots and why Parisians traditionally go for it after a long night out. I love soup on a cold day who doesn’t. And it always reminds me of my mother who loves the soup as well.
How about you? Are you a fan of French Onion soup? Have you had it before? Where? Have you made it at home? Had it in Paris? Do share!
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