I’ve had French Onion Soup only twice in my life. The first time, most appropriately, was during my last night in Paris. A friend of a friend of a friend (really) invited me to stay with her in her tiny apartment in Les Lilas in the 19th or 20th arrondissement. Karine’s apartment was deep in the working class neighborhoods of Paris. A short walk from the Mairie de Lilas Metro station, she lived near the end of the 11 line and where, I feel, the real Paris live. Little glamour, lots of graffiti on very old buildings, and with a beauty that traveled well below the surface of what I experienced in the heart of Paris. In my journal from that moment I wrote, “Les Lilas is definitely a working class neighborhood. This is what I imagine Dublin would look like.” I have a photograph taken from her tiny kitchen window and the horizon is lined with rooftops and chimneys stacked against each other as far as the eye can see.
For my last Parisian meal, I met Karine in a little café in the Latin Quarter named Le Petit Pont. Jazz played in the background and the waiter, a gorgeous Parisian with long dark hair, was attentive and reserved. Sitting with a bowl of French Onion Soup in front me, a glass of wine and my Parisian friend, I felt settled. My month of traveling in France was coming to an end and I felt both melancholy and content. France was starting to feel like home. At the same time, I was looking forward to returning to my home in the States. As Joni Mitchell so accurately sang of Paris back in 1971, “Still a lot of land to see, but I wouldn’t want to stay here, it’s too old and cold and settled in its ways here”. I found I missed the U.S. and I longed for our unstructured, adolescent anything goes attitude.
Karine and I parted ways that evening. Although I was to stay in her apartment for one more night, I would sadly miss her in the morning before heading out to catch my flight. After dinner, she headed home and I decided to stroll the Quarter for a spell. The night led me to Caveau de la Huchette. Formally a meeting point for secret societies like the Templar and the Rosicrucian’s, the cave reinvented itself as the center of Paris swing. I wandered in and, ironically, caught an American jazz band playing. I wish I could remember their name.
And that is when the night got interesting.
Let me set the scene up for you a bit. I traveled in France for one month. I was hit on my first day in Paris by a kind Indian man, while eating lunch at his restaurant, who invited me to stay at his house in the suburbs. Thirty days go by and, thankfully, I was left alone to journal, take pictures and explore. Until, of course, my last night in Paris in a jazz club. Moments after walking in the door, a very round older Frenchman asked me dance and I said yes. He was nice, mostly, but sleazy and asked me how many French boyfriends did I have while traveling in France. I said none of your business, which led him to say, cue the French accent, “I don’t know where you’re staying, but you can come home with me tonight.” No joke.
Understandably, I decided to sit out the dancing (he asked me again and again to dance) and just listen the music for the rest of the night. I decided to leave while the joint was still hopping and I was followed by a young Italian who appeared to have been giving me the eye all night. As we walked towards the metro he told me he was from Milan and that he wasn’t sure what train to catch to get back to his hotel in Versailles. Being the helpful American, I gave him my best directions and then he said, cue the Italian accent, “Or I could come home with you.” Again, no joke. I thanked him and mumble something about having to catch my train and scurried off.
And that, friends, was my last night in Paris.
What you’ll need:
5 Cups thinly sliced onions. There was no way I’m going to hand slice five onions, so I used my food processor. The slices aren’t very thin, but it worked just fine.
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1 quart beef stock. I used this brand, since I didn’t have any homemade.
1 quart water
1/2 cup dry sherry
salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoon Cognac
4-6 rounds of hard toasted French bread
1-2 cups grated Gruyère and/or Parmesan
Warm butter and oil a large saucepan on medium low. When the butter is almost completely melted stir in onions. Cover and let cook for about 15 minutes.
Remove cover and add salt and sugar. Raise heat to medium and let cook, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes. You want your onions to be a deep golden brown.
Remove pan from heat and stir in flour. Stir for a couple of minutes. Add stock and water and season to taste. Place pan back on burner and simmer partially covered for about 30 minutes.
Place toasted bread in bowls. Stir cognac into the soup and ladle over bread. Sprinkle generously with cheese and place under a hot broiler for few minutes. Soup will be ready when golden and bubbly.
Serve with a crusty peasant bread and a dry Rhone wine.