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Last Soupsong in Paris

(e-SoupSong 63: August 1, 2005)

Chers amis,

Mon dieu! Miracles do happen: I've been lucky enough to secure a four-year assignment in Paris. I report next year and have lots of work between now and then to tie up many loose ends and prepare for it. Alas, that means I must bring these monthly soupsongs to an end.

Was that a collective sigh of relief I heard? *laugh* I guess 5+ years' worth of soup stories was more than any of us would have believed possible. That said, I shall, of course, keep up with the website and maybe even improve on it...and I fully intend to cook up and serve the occasional soupsong and recipe to those of you who stay on the roster. Should I find new soups and their stories in new climes--and I shall--how could I resist?

For now, what better way to say au revoir than with a personal and truly Parisian tale of potage:

Remember Madeline, who lived "In an old house in Paris/that was covered in vines"? The one who was "not afraid of mice--/she loved winter, snow, and ice./To the tiger in the zoo/Madeline just said, 'Pooh, pooh/and nobody knew so well/how to frighten Miss Clavel"? As is likely true for many of you, she was my first introduction to Paris...and you may recall that she was not above preparing and serving soup when Miss Clavel and her 11 young friends were down with rotten colds. I can't tell what she's stirring in that big copper stock pot on the stove, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to find it was classic pot-au-feu.

"Pot on the fire" is so deeply French that 19th century folklorist Ernst Auricoste de Lazarque declared, "All people have their soups. France alone possesses le pot-au-feu." Its origins reach back to prehistoric times when hunters like those at the Lascaux caves would boil their meat in water until it was tender enough to eat, then drink every drop of the broth. And it was perfected over time to become a triumph of taste and economy in French households--and a traditional Sunday dinner. Chef Louis Diat claimed most French chefs would name it as their favorite meal: "a soothing gustatory escape after days of working on elaborate menus and dishes that stint on neither skill nor money, and its simplicity helps our taste buds stay acute." Writer Marie Jacques described her cook Colette's recipe: "it is made by the very simple expedient of taking a nice piece of boiling beef and cooking it in a big pot, with all the vegetables you have handy. At the end of five to seven hours of cooking, fish out the beef--which will be perfectly tender--slice it, and serve it hot, covered with any meat sauces you like. Or an even simpler--and really more French--way of doing things is just to slice the beef, arrange the slices at the middle of a dish, fish out of the pot enough vegetables to make a pretty border, and pour a little of the pot liquor over all. Serve the soup first, with bread broken into it, and you have the staple dinner of the French middle-class household, comparable to a meal of roast mutton and bread pudding in England."

The recipe below is a little more complicated than Colette's, but worth it--the soup clear and fragrant, the vegetables exquisite, the boeuf bouilli richly tender, and you even get a fine leek hors d'oeuvre to start. Diat is right--there is a purity and brightness to this meal that is utterly transporting.

POT-AU-FEU (dinner for 6-8 people)

  • 4 pounds boneless beef in one piece (rump and chuck are both good)
  • 1 pound beef and/or veal bones with marrow, sliced or cracked
  • cold water to cover

  • 4 and 1/2 quarts cold water
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 2 big onions, stuck with 3 cloves each

  • 6 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 4 turnips, peeled and quartered
  • 2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 celery stalks, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 6-8 slender leeks, washed carefully and trimmed down into the green, and bound with string into a packet
  • 1 garlic clove
  • parsley sprigs
  • bay leaf

  • salt to taste
Garnish for leek hors d'oeuvre: 2 Tablespoons vinaigrette and small pieces of red and/or green lettuce.
Garnish for soup: finely minced parsley and celery leaves.
Garnish for meat and vegetables: Because the meat is mild in taste after its long cooking, grate black pepper over the arranged slices and serve with a sharp or flavorful sauce (horseradish is fine), or with mustard and sour pickles.

1. You may be annoyed at the first step: put the beef, bones, and cold water to cover into your stock pot, bring to a boil over medium heat, let boil for 5 minutes, then drain and rinse the meat and bones, discard the liquid, and wash the pot. This step is all about getting rid of the scum--and it succeeds wonderfully. If you skip this step, you will be standing at the pot for a long time skimming off all the scum and you still won't get the scum stuck on the bottom of the pot so your soup will be cloudy. I tried it both ways, and I'm here to tell ya....

2. Place the rinsed meat and bones in the cleaned pot with 4 and 1/2 quarts (18 cups) cold water and two onions spiked with cloves. Bring to a boil over medium heat, skim whatever scum floats up (not much), then reduce the heat to low, cover, and let simmer 2 hours.

3. Add the carrots, turnips, parsnips, celery, bundle of leeks, garlic, parsley, and bay leaf. Let cook 1 hour. Remove the leek bundle and let cool slightly. Continue cooking the soup for another 30 minutes.

4. Slice each leek in half lengthwise and dribble the cut halves with vinaigrette. Reserve until you are ready to serve dinner, at which point you will serve each person a small plate with the leeks presented on small pieces of red and/or green lettuce.

5. When the meat and vegetables are finished cooking, discard the onions, parsley, bay leaf, and bones. Remove the meat and vegetables to a separate platter, cover with foil, and place in a warm oven until ready to serve. Strain the soup through dampened cheesecloth into a pot. Skim off the fat, reheat, and season to taste with salt. Leave simmering, uncovered.

6. Now you are ready to eat. First, serve the leek hors d'oeuvre. Second, ladle the soup into cups and sprinkle with finely minced parsley and celery leaves. Third, slice the meat and arrange on a serving platter, arrange the vegetables around the edge, moistening with soup to taste and grating black pepper over the meat, and serve with sauce or with mustard and sour pickles.

Don't forget the red wine and crusty bread--bon appetit!

Bien amicalement,
Pat Solley

Resources: Ludwig Bemelmans' La Bonne Table, Madeline, Madeline's Rescue, Madeline and the Bad Hat, Madeline and the Gypsies, Madeline in London, Madeline's Christmas, and Street Where the Heart Lies; Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking; Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food; ; Louis Diat's Gourmet's Basic French Cookbook; Marie Jacques' Colette's Best Recipes; and Larousse Gastronomique.