Who knew that REAL French onion soup began its life in Lyon? So declared lyonnais Bernard Chaléat, friend of Catherine (pictured), before we ever arrived: “La soupe à l’oignon est d’origine lyonnaise!”
Me, I would have put money on its origin in Paris, old standby that its soupe à l’oignon has been historically at Les Halles and Montmartre. And I would have lost.
Come south with me from Paris to Lyon, at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers–a town founded as a Roman military colony of Lugdunum in 43 BCE, then rising to prominence from its easy position on major trading routes. The town nearly backrupted itself buying the gorgeous silks that came over the silk road from China–to the point that in 1436 Louis XI declared the town should make its own silk…and in 1536, Francois I gave Lyon the French monopoly. By the 1750s Lyon had become the silk-weaving capital of Europe.
What does all this have to do with onion soup? In fact, onion soup had everything to do with Lyon’s masses of overworked/underpaid canuts (silk workers). They worked 18 hours a day; they needed hot, rich, cheap food. Voila, onion soup poured over stale bread and a little cheese thrown on top. Probably it started as a way to flavor and enrich the broth of traditional pot-au-feu–and to use up stale bread. Then it became a tradition–and was traditionally served as the last course (if the meal was lucky enough to have several courses) to fill up and warm the bellies of workers on their way back to the looms.
Crazy, though, that this simple beginning blossomed into today’s “gratinée lyonnaise” that insists on the addition of egg yolks and…port! Don’t ask me how a red fortified wine from the Douro Valley in Portugal found its way into this soup. In any case, you can see the upshot in the picture, under Catherine’s smiling face at Les Fines Gueules bouchon in the St. Jean district of Lyon. And you should taste it too. Despite my doubts, it’s marvelous. The chopped onions pretty much dissolve into browned richness; the egg yolks make it silky; and the port, at the end, envelopes you in heady fragrance.
Gratinée lyonnaise (for 4)
- 2 Tablespoons butter; 2 Tablespoons oil
- 4 medium onions, chopped
- 6 cups beef stock (ideally, broth from your pot-au-feu)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2-3 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup red port, medium dry
- stale sliced French bread, toasted in a slow oven until crisp through
- 1/2-1 cup grated Comté cheese (Gruyére or Swiss is also fine, though Comté is more local to the area)
Heat the butter and oil over medium heat, toss in the onions, and sauté, stirring, for a few minutes. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and let cook until the onions have browned on the bottom. Stir the browned bits through the onion, then pour in the stock, taste for seasoning, and heat to boiling. Reduce heat to low, cover, and let simmer for at least 30 minutes. The onions should have mostly melted away.
Toast the stale French bread slices. Grate the cheese. Have the egg yolks and port handy.
When ready to serve, beat the egg yolks into the port and stir into the simmering pot. Let thicken and get silky for about 5 minutes. Place the toasted croutons into flat serving plates. Ladle the soup on top. Sprinkle each serving with as much or as little cheese as you like–but err on the light side. Such a relief to not be confronted with the Parisian throat-choking plate of cheese on top. You can serve the soup immediately or run the plates under the broiler for a quick crust.
As a last note, many thanks to Bernard and Anne Chaléat, who gave Catherine and me such an extraordinary tour of the city and its Roman aqueduct, then happily fed us in their beautiful home–all the best food of Lyon, culinary capital of France.
Finally, do I recommend Les Fines Gueules, founded by Franck Perrin and Ludovic Rouviere in 2002? Certainement! Lovely atmosphere and excellent food.
16 rue LAINERIE
69005 LYON 05
Téléphone : 04 78 28 99 14