Food Facts & Lore

A Brief History of French Onion Soup

Italian men are said to be the most romantic; but French chefs feed the love of Valentines the world over with beauty, fragrance and flavor that set the tone for the meeting of minds and hearts. How does French Onion Soup fit in this picture? Well, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, we think it is a most fitting statement of self-love. There is nothing like a good soup to bring comfort.

Onion soup gained much popularity in the United States around the 1960’s. It was the trend du jour. The classic recipe we so love today is a variation on the Medieval sops. In fact, the word “soup” itself shares this origin as it derives from Old French “Sope,” a broth or bullion in which a piece of bread or toast was soaked. This was consumed using that piece of bread to sop up the liquid. No spoon. This type of meal was typically served later in the day as part of a light meal. The heavier meals were consumed mid-day. And so, we now refer to our end-of-day meal as “Supper.”

We found one of the earliest recorded recipes for Onion Soup on The Food Timeline. It’s author was French cook Francois Pierre La Varenne, 1651.

“Potage of onion. Cut your onions into very thin slices, fry them with butter, and after they are fried put them into a pot with water or with pease broth. After they are well sod, put in it a crust of bread and let it boile a very little; you may put some capers in it. Dry your bread then stove it; take up, and serve with one drop of vinegar.”

But where’s the cheese? The following historical account may or may not be accurate, but every good dish worthy of veneration deserves a spectacular origin story. French Onion Soup certainly fits the requirements. So, we now turn to 19th century France, in the kitchen of the hotel La Pomme d’Or. The chef was none other than Nicolas Appert, the inventor of food canning.

It is said that Stanislas, Duke of Lorraine and former king of Poland, stopped in for the night. Chef Appert served Onion Soup that night, which may have been topped with a sumptuous cheese garnish. Upon finishing his supper in his chambers, the Duke was so impressed that he rushed to the kitchen to demand the recipe, which he then shared with family and acquaintances throughout France. The tale is verified, at least in part, by way of Appert’s 1831 cookbook where he honors the Duke and former Monarch by naming the dish, “Soupe à la Stanislas.”

Some believe that the modern-day recipe, characterized by the warm and inviting cheese garnish, was conceived a century prior to the Duke’s chance encounter with the dish, but the stories and sources are not easily verifiable. Of course, the Greeks and Romans were already consuming broths with onion and breads 8000 years prior to this incident.

Onions were among the most common and easiest vegetables to cultivate, and from ancient times to today, many have assigned powers to onions and onion soup well beyond their remarkable nutritional value. The French thought onion soup was the ideal cure for hangovers. Do not try this at home but do enjoy a good French Onion Soup on occasion, especially during the winter months if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. It has true restorative powers. It may even be as comforting as a loving embrace.