I stole a loaf of bread. My sister’s child was close to death, and we were starving… (Jean Valjean)
And so it begins. At the end of the day, this is a Gallic soup for poverty, leaning heavily on the thrift of onions, broth and hunks of stale bread. It’s soothing for throats strained from singing the songs of angry men. It’s warming for hands that have been sent to the darkness on their own. And on the top you’ll find floating castles of croutons, festooned with clouds of grated cheese. Nb for those who are hard of hearing, it might be worth clarifying that the cheese is pronounced Gruyere, not Javert, though feel free to shout either as loudly and as often as you feel is necessary.
This is the sort of soup that’s there for both celebrations and commiserations, whether you’re the master of the house, or contemplating empty chairs at empty tables. Though, if for some reason at the end of 158 minutes with The Miserable Ones you remain untouched by Fantine’s toothless plight, then slicing 700 grams of onions should go some way to bringing on the tears.
French Onion Soup
700g thinly sliced brown onion
2 sprigs of thyme
2 tbsp plain flour
1 cup of dry white wine
1.4 litres beef stock (you could substitute vegetable if you wanted a vegetarian version)
½ of a day old baguette, sliced on diagonal into 1.5 cm croutons
140 grams of Gruyère, finely grated, rinds reserved
Salt and pepper to taste.
Optional: 2 tbsp of port or Madeira
1) Peel and thinly slice the onions into half moons. It will help with the crying if your knife is very sharp, otherwise put a little bit of dry bread in your mouth while you do it.
2) Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven or sauce pan. Soften the onions with the thyme and a good pinch of salt over a low heat for at least 40 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so to ensure they don’t catch on the bottom.
3) When the onions are a deep caramel and have significantly reduced in size stir in 2 tbsp of plain flour and cook for a few minutes.
4) Add the white wine and turn up the heat so it begins to simmer. Stir to help bring up any residual sugars that have caramelised on the bottom of the pot.
5) Add the stock and if you have them, the rinds of the cheese. Leave to simmer with the lid off for 45 minutes.
6) Before serving taste the soup. Add two to three tablespoons of port or madeira if you think it could be richer. Add salt and pepper to taste.
7) To prepare the croutons, preheat the grill in your oven. Top the slices of baguette with a cloud of grated cheese and transfer to a baking tray. Grill until the bread is toasted and the cheese is melted.
8) Portion the soup into bowls, being careful not to serve the cheese rinds and thyme sprigs. Float a crouton or two on top of each bowl so it can absorb some of the soup.
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