French food is remarkably varied. Like any large country, its geography changes as you travel across it, and correspondingly, the flavours and ingredients change. I can't claim to be any kind of expert on the subject of French food, and will not pretend to be. I can recognise how the dishes of the south are influenced by the ingredients of the Mediterranean and France's neighbours situated around that sea. I can also see how the dishes of the north reflect its cooler climate.
If you overlook the regional variations, there are 2 categories of French food; fine dining dishes which you will find served in the more classy establishments, and 'country' style cooking; the more rustic everyday dishes. It comes as no surprise that the country style dishes lend themselves to home cooking. Most are hearty dishes made with inexpensive ingredients as they were dishes devised to feed farmers and labourers.
One dish that has made something of a cross-over from country dish to fine dining dish is French onion soup. Originally a cheap dish designed to use up stale bread, it is found on the menus of restaurants across France.
Here is my take on French onion soup. This version uses beef stock to get that dark brown colour and deep flavour I experienced on eating this dish during my recent trip to Paris. It will therefore not be suitable for vegetarians or practising Hindus. I have never made the soup with vegetable stock, but would imagine it is still extremely edible, although it will be much paler in colour as a result.
Please be warned: this is an exceptionally simple dish to make, but is a little time consuming. I might suggest this as a weekend dish. As you will see, my amounts make a full supper dish for 3 people, but you could serve up in smaller proportions as a starter for a dinner party, and any soup which is left over makes a wonderful lunch. In my house, the cook's prerogative is taking the leftover soup into work for lunch. OK, I can't do the toasty gratins at work, but the soup itself is a wonderfully comforting lunch as the days get increasingly colder.
Serves 3 greedy people as a supper
1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp olive oil
3 medium onions
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole (for the gratinated toasts)
½ glass white wine
1 litre beef stock (I use the Knorr liquid 'Touch of taste' product, which isn't too salty)
4 sprigs fresh thyme (you don't have to remove the leaves, by the time it is cooked you just fish the stalks out)
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp white flour
Stale French bread, enough for 3 slices per person
Cheese, such as mature cheddar (or to be more authentic, Gruyère or similar), grated coarsely
½ tsp dried herbes de Provence
½ tsp dried wild garlic
1½-2 tbsp brandy
1. Melt the butter under a low heat. Add the olive oil and mix thoroughly. Bring the heat up to medium and add the onions. Fry for 15 minutes, until golden and softening. Please do not allow them to brown!
2. Add the garlic and herbs, and fry for 5 minutes, again, please do not allow to brown.
Add the sugar, to enhance the sweetness which is beginning to come out of the onions. Mix well. Keep cooking over a medium heat for another 25 minutes. To prevent the onions catching, you will have to keep stirring.
3. Add the flour and mix in. Cook for about 2-3 minutes to 'cook out' the floury taste.
4. Now add the white wine. If serving to children, keep cooking until the alcohol smell of the wine has gone, about 3-5 minutes. Add the stock, and turn up the heat. When boiling, lower the heat to a simmer and allow it to gently bubble for 35-40 minutes.
5. Whilst this is happening, heat up your grill. Cut your French bread into little circular slices and toast them lightly. When done, rub with the whole garlic cloves (this is a great trick for extra tasty Bruschetta, by the way!). Put to one side.
6. When the soup is ready, if you are using it, stir in the brandy. Now fill some ovenproof soup bowls with the soup, leaving space for the gratinated toasts. Put your bowls on a firm base which you can put under the grill (I use the grill pan base without the mesh grill part). You need the bowls to be safe and steady.
7. When ready for the final stage, float your toasts, cover in cheese and grill until the cheese has melted, about 3-5minutes.
8. Your bowls will be insanely hot now, so remove with care (using oven gloves) from the grill and serve.
Delia Smith bakes French bread croutons instead of my little toasties. She drizzles olive oil and sprinkles crushed garlic onto thin slices of French bread and bakes them for 20-25 minutes at 180°C.
Nigel Slater suggests: “Parmesan in place of Gruyère produces a less fatty but just as tasty crust.”