I was defrosting the refrigerator, a dreary though ultimately highly satisfying procedure. And there was that bag of small onions I had expected to incorporate into a recent casserole and completely forgotten about, calling fretfully out to me soup, soup, or so I imagined.
French Onion Soup of course! I had not made it for such a long time I had not remembered the tears that would flow; it had been unwise, previously, to remove my protective contact lenses. Once sliced thinly, however, it became the much-loved recipe I did remember, the translucent half-moons collapsing gradually into the heating pot of olive oil. Afterwards I chided myself for not beginning with butter – butter endowing that luxurious richness to the final product – and thought that a slurp of brandy, had there been any residing in my cupboard, would have provided another lovely layer. As it was, my Onion Soup – or Soupe à l’Oignon – resulted in a deep bowl of dense soul-warming broth redolent of sweet, caramelised onions, fresh bay leaf and whole black peppercorns with which I had simmered it, under its plank of toasted sourdough and molten parmesan.
Not strictly faithful to the traditional French recipe, I was well aware, but one must rely on what one has at hand. It seemed fitting, a soup like that, with Bastille Day nearly upon us. Soupe à l’Oignon was made famous in the Les Halles district of Paris and was a poor man’s dish. My mother’s Soupe à l’Oignon was close to the authentic, although what chiefly characterised it, at least in my memory, was the amount of time we needed to patiently wait for it to become cool enough to lower our soup spoons into. She had gone so far as to purchase oven-proof bowls for it, into which she would ladle her burnished-brown soup (rich, yes, in both butter and brandy, her two great loves). On top she would arrange breadstick slices then an ample scattering of grated gruyere cheese and into the oven until the cheese melted. There we would be, a family suspended before our searing bowls, longing – because the fragrance was so glorious – for the moment we could dunk the spoon in and using its side as a little knife carve away a section of the semi- submerged cheesy bread before conveying its contents to our mouths. Greedy child that I was, I invariably ended up with a blistered mouth.
Writer Eric Weir says of Soupe a l’Oignon that ‘there is a little restaurant in Montmartre where one can eat it in a most cheerful, disreputable crowd, to the sound of an asthmatic concertina, up to any hour of the morning… it tastes best at 2 o’clock in the morning after a hectic night’.