When I was a child, one the best dishes — at least to my childish palate — was my mother’s onion soup. Her recipe was simplicity itself: take several silver-wrapped cubes of beef bouillon from the little white cardboard can decorated with red cows, dissolve them in hot water, dump in a bunch of sliced onions, and cook until they were transparent and soft. It was salty and savory, completely satisfying on a cold night. Of course I didn’t know the word “savory,” but I could certainly recognize its flavor. It would be decades before I learned that the stuff in my bowl was “onion soup” in name only.
To be fair, she never said it was French onion soup. It was American, in the sense that it took shortcuts via technologies that no French chef could even imagine. However, it did have something in common with a French tradition that goes back to the great gourmet, Auguste Brillat-Savarin. One of his most brilliant “discoveries” was of something that doesn’t actually exist, despite his conviction that it did. His “osmazome” was to gastronomy what “phlogiston” and “the ether” were to the physical sciences: an invented term for something unprovable in order to explicate the inexplicable. In his book, The Physiology of Taste: Or, Transcendental Gastronomy, he wrote, in 1825:
Osmazome is that preeminently sapid part of meat which is soluble in cold water, and which differs completely from the extractive part of the meat, which is soluble only in water that is boiling.
It is osmazome which gives all their value to good soups; it is osmazome which, as it browns, makes the savory reddish tinge in sauces and the crisp coating on roasted meat, finally it is from the osmazome that comes the special tangy juices of venison and game.
Brillat-Savarin’s “science” was basically wishful thinking, but it foreshadowed two actual scientific discoveries. The Maillard Reaction (discovered in 1910, by Louis Camille Maillard), is the interaction of proteins and carbohydrates that, when heated, create a host of rich flavoring compounds. It provides the tasty browning of roasted meats, coffee beans, and other foods. This browning is often mistakenly called “caramelization,” which a different process (one that doesn’t involve proteins). The other was umami (discovered in 1908, by Kikunae Ikeda), the savory taste, first isolated from seaweed, that was only proven to be the fifth basic taste in 2001.
What my mother’s bouillon cubes had, in spades, was umami. It got it, in small part, from beef — but mostly from hydrolyzed vegetable protein, which is basically an industrialized version of soy sauce. The reason those little cubes and soy sauce make things so satisfying is they are loaded with glutamates. Think MSG. Think Accent. This is a naturally-occurring compound is found in cheeses, meats, mushrooms, tomatoes, and many of the other foodstuffs we love. Osmazome it may not be, but tasty it certainly is.
If French cooks don’t get their umami fix from little silver-wrapped cubes, where do they get it? From stock. Meaty soup bones, slowly roasted with mire poix (two parts onion, one part each of carrots and celery). Once these are nicely browned, they are slowly simmered in water until all of their flavors — proteins, minerals, vitamins, Maillard-produced compounds, and glutamates — are dissolved in the stock. Stock is the foundation of French cooking, and it is practically everything in French onion soup.
Home cooks, in France, don’t always use stock (stock takes a lot of time, and is important enough to justify its production in professional kitchens); they might use only water. Either way, the thinly-sliced onions (which are naturally rich in soluble glutamates) are slowly cooked in butter, with a little flour, until they are uniformly golden, being careful not to let them get brown (and bitter). Sometimes the onions are strained out of the finished soup, which makes for a more refined version of the soup than we see in American restaurants.
We’re accustomed to little crocks of full-flavored soup, filled with succulent slivers of onion, usually topped with a large croûton and smothered in melted cheese, served bubbling-hot from the broiler. Americans love melted cheese (our versions of Mexican dishes are almost always smothered in cheese — which is not at all they way they’re served in Mexico). Our familiar French Onion Soup, called “Soupe à la Oignon Gratinée,” is made that way in France, too, but their cheesy version is sometimes done in a slightly different fashion.
“Soupe à la Oignon Fromage” isn’t served in individual crocks, and doesn’t go under the broiler. Madame E. Sainte-Ange’s La Bonne Cuisine — a cookbook that, in French households, is as familiar as The Joy of Cooking or The Betty Crocker Cookbook are in the U.S. — she writes:
To obtain the stringiness that pleases the lovers of this soup so much, you must have good Gruyère cheese, fresh and with a high fat content. Grate it, or cut it in little pieces as thin as a sheet of paper. If it is too thick, it will not melt well and will require much more time. Arrange one-third of the baguette rounds in the bottom of the tureen. Cover them with one-third of the cheese, about 1 good tablespoon, and add a little pepper. Make a second layer of rounds and cheese without omitting the pepper; then a third, final layer. In all, 3 good tablespoons of cheese.
Pour the onion bouillon into the tureen (either straining it or not). Cover with a tight-fitting lid. Leave it in a low oven for a few minutes. Serve.
I haven’t tried la Sainte-Ange’s non-gratinéed version, but I suspect the bread would dissolve, thickening the soup, and the threads of cheese, distributed throughout the soup (rather than just on top) would make a dish whose texture resembles Chinese Eggdrop Soup. Cool weather — soup season — is almost here; I’m looking forward to a kitchen redolent of roasted mire poix, well-browned beef bones, and golden buttery onions.
French Onion Soup can be found anywhere: from dive bars to white tablecloth joints, from hipster hang-outs to classic French bistros. Over the course of three weeks, two of us slurped a bunch of them, and (almost) never tired of them.
It’s not possible to point out if one crock contained the best — or the worst — French Onion Soup in the Hudson Valley. After all, we could never sample ALL of the potential candidates — we could easily have missed the winning (or losing) candidate. Besides, even though they’re all the same dish, their recipes, preparation, and service style are all different. Plus, there are so many subjective judgments involved: some people want more cheese than others; some don’t want to detect any unwarranted spiciness, while others like the surprise of a bit of zing; some want a lot of onions or bread, some not so much; still others come to the table with preconceived notions of their ideal soup, and are pleased or disappointed when reality doesn’t match it. And then there’s the influence of the restaurant’s ambiance and reputation.
These are all reasons why I would never want to be a restaurant critic (and why I take the recommendations of other critics with a shaker of proverbial salt).
The best we could do was to decide if our sampled soups met (or didn’t meet) our expectations. It would not be fair for us to say which restaurant’s soup failed to live up to our imaginary ideal. Anyone can have an off day, and a disappointing soup might not be typical of the restaurant’s usual fare. However, we can say, without hesitation, that we were both surprised and delighted by our soup experience at The Anchor, in Kingston.
Featured Image: French Onion Soup from The Anchor in Kingston, NY. All photographs by the author.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us