Cooking in French: Soup – Cuisine’s Kindest Course*

“The French peasant cuisine is at the basis of the culinary art. By this I mean it is composed of honest elements that la grande cuisine only embellishes.”
~ Alexandre Dumaine

A succulent soup provides a glistening gem of daily nourishment during all the seasons of the year, but especially during autumn, that narrow doorway into winter and the dark days of the waning year. I really look forward to autumn for that reason, as well as for the visual symphony that hums outside my kitchen windows as the changing leaves fall.

For cooks like me, weary of yet another bowl of Italian minestrone or white-truffle-oiled bean soup, discovering the endless pastiche of French soups is a little like going up to the attic in grandma’s house and finding a lace- and pearl-studded dress, just my size, just perfect for an elegant soirée, with “soup of the evening,”** of course.

What treasure, in other words.

The diversity of French soups, as Dumaine said, comes from the peasant’s pot, the hands and potager (which can be loosely translated as “garden for soup”) of the women of the house. La soupe, as well as potée and potage and pot-au feu, first saw the light from the inside of cauldrons stirred in the homes of people not of the nobility.

There’s le bouillon, or better said, “stock,” the liquid that remains after simmering herbs, meat and bones, aromatic vegetables like carrots, celery, and onions together, leaching out flavor.

A fifteenth-century French cookery manuscript, Le Vivendier, edited by Terence Scully, reveals some nuggets of information about the evolution of soup in France. One recipe, “Brouet d’allemaigne de char” (German Meat Broth) reads like this (Scully’s translation):

To make a German Meat Broth of rabbit, of chicken or of some other meat. It should be cut up into pieces and sauteed [sic] with finely chopped onions; get a lot of of almond milk and ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, grains of paradise and saffron; boil everything together with good bouillon. Pour it over your meat.

(Scully suggests that perhaps an earlier copier made an error, possibly because the text was being read to him, and wrote the French word for almonds (modern word is “amande“) as “alemandes,” and that this recipe were at some point simply “Brouet d’alemandes.”)

Once the basic technique (meat and/or vegetables,water, herbs) provided the framework for what we now call soup (thick or thin), the permutations could be endless. And thus the early development of French soups led to a number of other concoctions.

Straining the remnants of the le bouillon through a fine-meshed sieve called a chinoise gives birth to le consommé, which is then clarified with a rack and embellished with shavings of truffles, fresh morels, crisp asparagus, or other delicately flavored vegetables, flavored with Port, Sherry, or another similar wine. (This was likely NOT a peasant invention.)

Smooth, creamy, le velouté also shares DNA with le bouillon, enriched with a purée of vegetables, like carrots, pumpkin or similar squash, mushrooms, tomatoes, leeks, or combinations of all of these. Cooks sometimes add cream, egg yolks, and butter to thicken and stabilize le velouté.

La bisque is a shellfish velouté made from lobster, crab, shrimp, scallops, or oysters, enriched with cream and blended until smooth, enlivened with a pinch of cayenne pepper and dashes of cognac or white wine. Other seafood soups (and stews) enliven the whole question of French soups and broths, too.

La crème gussies itself up even more than le velouté, containing as it does a hefty amount of heavy cream. Vichyssoise — rich and ripe with potatoes — presents us with a delectable, and common, example of a cream soup. The Larousse Gastronomique (2009) defines this class of soups as “thickened with béchamel sauce or a roux and usually enriched with cream.” Or bread, if you’re hard=pressed for anything else. Cousins of vichyssoise include cream of asparagus, cream of mushroom, cream of spinach, cream of lettuce — the permutations spill forth like pearls slipping off a broken choker: cream of watercress, cream of sorrel, cream of thistle, too. (At first that sounds hardly appetizing, but think for a moment — artichokes are thistles … and so maybe it’s not so bad.)

Le purée elevates vegetables to soup, thickened with the starch of the vegetables themselves or with floury potatoes. Finished with nuggets of butter, le purée — especially that made with turnips or rutabagas — became the nourishment of the many evenings of the endless days of toil, war, and perhaps gratitude and joy, too. Don’t forget the joy.

And ” joy”  captures the essence of cooking French. France still produces profoundly delicious food that can be adapted to any number of cuisines, true. But the point here is that the French culinary tradition, with its vast repertoire of recipes, is every bit as much within the reach of home cooks as is Italian or other cuisines.

As food writer Naomi Barry once wrote, “Cooking is like music in that, once composed, it requires great interpreters to keep it alive.”***

(For awhile, we will be looking at some of these recipes, examining them in light of utility but also in context with the rural and agriculturally centered lives of the women who created the recipes in the first place. )

Cream of Bread Soup (Adapted from Françoise Bernard’s  La Cuisine: Everyday French Home Cooking.)
Serves 4

Just to show you how easy French cooking can be …

1/4 pound leftover bread (the more flavorful the better! Try onion bread, herb bread, etc. Or heavy dark bread, like that eaten by peasants before white flour became cheap. )
2 cups whole milk
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 T. unsalted butter
1 to 2 T. crème fraîche, or to taste

Put the bread in heavy sauce pan with the milk and 3 cups of water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, turn heat to low and simmer for 40 minutes. Stir often. Puree the soup in a food mill, blender, or food processor. Pour soup back into the pan and reheat slowly and gently. Stir in butter and crème fraîche. Serve with a garnish of chopped chives or other herbs.

To be continued …


*Louis De Gouy, The Soup Book (1949)

**Soup of The Evening
Lewis Carroll

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Soo – oop of the e – e – evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish,
Game, or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Soo – oop of the e – e – evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

***Gourmet magazine, February 1964.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

6 thoughts on “Cooking in French: Soup – Cuisine’s Kindest Course*

  1. Hi,

    I used this receipe immediately – just had too much of bread and no idea what to cook for a dinner. It turned out simply great and everybody liked it (not to mention the conversation it stirred!), thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Sorry about that! Stay tuned, though, because there’s more (and better) to come. My husband grew up with something similar, a Norwegian concoction called “grøt.” To my mind, it would be better to cook the bread in the butter first and then add the milk to thicken it. That way you would get that delicious browned butter /toasted bread flavor …

  3. Such a rich, lovely, send-me-to-France-now, piece of writing that made my mouth water in anticipation of the end recipe. Until I got to it. That’s a new one, cream of bread. Seems kind of like something my bread and milk obsessed five year-old would make and I would abscond him with, “It’s not a complete meal without including something grown in the ground of off a tree.”

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