Soupe à l’oignon


On the Right Bank of Paris just off the Rue St. Denis lies the district once known as Les Halles. Before the advent of les super marché (supermarkets) this was the central food market for the City of Lights. Dusk till dawn, trucks from all over France rolled into the narrow streets. Farmers unloaded their produce and set up shop on makeshift wooden stands: Huge pyramids of snails from Burgundian vineyards, stuffed with parsley-flecked garlic butter. Lobsters and oysters and clams and mussles nestled on beds of seaweed. Sausages larger than a man’s arm. Whole carcasses of beef from Burgundy. Lambs fed on salt marshes in Brittany. Pigs fattened in apple orchards of Normandy. Pork products from Alsace-Lorraine. Geese and their swollen livers from Toulouse and Strasbourg. Ducks from Rouen and Nantes. Blue-footed chickens from Bresse. Belgian carrots arranged in colorful bouquets. Haricort vert, the skinny string beans. Cheeses of every size, shape and sort, from gargantuan wheels of white-mold Brie de Meaux to the miniature Petite Suisse, a cream cheese the size and shape of Fleers' Double Bubble. Amidst the hubbub, Parisian chefs great and small rubbed elbows with little old ladies vending violet nosegays. Beneath hissing gaslights on the Rue St. Denis, ladies of the night, great and small, young and old, plied their ancient profession.

Les Halles is gone, its Old World ambience replaced by the garishly lighted Pompidou Center and multi-pierced tatooed punks. One place remains from the old days, however, a restaurant renown throughout much of the civilized world. Au Pied de Cochon (The Pigs Foot) is where upper-, middle-, and working-class citizens still come to restore themselves all hours of the day and night. Most famous of its dishes is soupe à l’oignon. Nothing is more warming or satisfying on a chill September morn.

On my first trip to Paris in 1958, a crock of this golden onion soup, topped with a handful of bubbling Gruyere floated on a slice of toasted baguette, cost about a nickel -- if you stood at the bar on the ground floor alongside greengrocers clothed in black berets and blue smocks, and bare-armed butchers clad in bloody aprons. But if you sat on the mezzanine among the shopkeepers and office workers, that same bowl of soup cost almost double. For those who wished (and could afford) to dine apart from the petite bourgeoisie, there was a third level. Although it is extremely unlikely that many of the moneyed class seated on the top level selected the lowly onion soup, for those who did the price was surely higher than their brows.

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1 med. yellow onion        2 cups rich chicken or vegetable broth        2T butter       1T flour

2 thick slices French bread         ½ cup shredded Gruyere        1T grated Parmesan (opt.)

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Bring the broth to a low simmer in a 2qt saucepan. Melt the butter in a skillet over med. heat. Peel the onion and slice it in half lengthwise. Cut into thin slices. Separate them and place in the frying pan. Toss to coat with butter. Sprinkle with flour. Stirring occasionally, continue cooking until light gold.* Do not brown. Add the onions to the broth, stir well, simmer for 10-15 min. Add more broth if soup becomes too thick.

Divide the soup between two heatproof bowls -- preferably made of earthenware and with an opening just slightly larger than the bread. Top each bowl with a slice of French bread dried in the oven. Sprinkle ½ the Gruyere and ½ the Parmesan (if used) over each. Place the bowls in a preheated 450°oven until the cheese melts and begins to bubble. (If the soup is still very hot, you may place the bowls under the broiler.)

* If you make a large amount of soup, after coating the onion slices with butter and sprinkling with flour, place them on a baking sheet in a 350° oven until golden.

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