Sunday, February 14, 2010


It is generally agreed that the French have long held monopoly in the romance department. With Cupid in their corner it seems, while they somehow understand exactly how to maximise the moment of seduction, they still also take sensual delight in many everyday situations. Throw in a celebration and they are never happier.

So picture this. The wedding is over. You have finally shaken off the last of the friends and relations, kissed your family goodbye (or so you thought) and, with a sigh of relief, you stagger upstairs to the honeymoon suite. Just moments later, as you are about to relax, there is a gentle tap at the door, and from the other side, muffled chuckles, excited noises and an unmistakable odour. That smell! Is that, can that actually be – onions?

On investigation, you beaming well-wishers proudly presenting you with two bowls of onion soup.

"Eat it all," they tell you, then warn, "We will be back!"

And they are – quite soon, to make sure those bowls are good and empty, signifying that you have been properly, finally, launched safely onto the turbulent sea of matrimony.

While urbane French couples will possibly never be faced with this post-nuptial activity, that would have been the scenario if you had married in parts of rural France some time ago. No one knows the reasons behind the custom, but people still living today remember their mothers and grandmothers recounting tales of those bowls of steaming onion soup, their own strange wedding night fare.

There is certainly no doubt that onions are basic to French cuisine. Even the language supports this. 'Occupe-toi de tes oignons' you will be told swiftly – literally, watch your own onions – if a French person thinks you need to mind your own business. Make a scene, and they say you have created 'un spectacle des petits oignons', but take extra care when you do something and they will praise you for making it 'aux petits oignons.' And those same family members who toasted the bride and groom with soup at midnight, when lined up to kiss them after the ceremony in a queue, would be described in French as 'en rang d'oignon'.

It is hard to know how that onion soup custom came about. Onions, as indeed all members of the lily family, asparagus included, have long been dubbed aphrodisiacs, so perhaps that may be the link. Certainly onion soup has also long been considered a great restorative – although surely yiu would think that should better qualify it for a place on the morning-after menu, rather than the night before!

Tears and weddings traditionally go together, and onions and tears have a natural affinity too. Although they have been cultivated for 6000 years, still no one has yet developed a varietu which doesn't make us cry. It is believed that when the slaves assigned to building the pyramids were not consuming garlic, they ate onions, a tribute to that vegetable's strengthening properties.

Hippocrates thought onions were good for the sight, but while love is blind, could this be taking the supposed romantic powers of onions just a bit too far? One 16th-century food writer assured his readers that onions promote sleep. Fine advice, but not necessarily on the wedding-night and, when you think about it, how romantic is onion-breath, anyway? Perhaps that is why both the bride and groom were asked to drain the bowls.

Folk-sayings are thick with claims for onions. They make peasants work harder, cure bee stings, frighten away snakes, allow roses to smell sweeter if planted between the bushes, clean out the bowels and reduce blood pressure. If a man sleeps with an onion under his pillow, people were once told, he will dream of his future wife.

Modern health experts now accept that onions contain a natural antibiotic, but still steer clear of the old claim that onion juice squeezed on a bald head will cause hair to regrow. Even more archaically it was once suggested that onions increase 'lust and lecherye'.

While it is easy to sneer at simple wisdom, perhaps the French knew something we don't, for onion soup is a great dish at any time of the day or night. Maybe the custom is worth reviving. With a bit of luck it might just arouse the passions, restore your strength, or, at its worst, merely lull you both into a sound night's sleep.

In case you want to try it for yourself, here is a simple recipe.


30g butter

1 large onion, thinly sliced

l clove garlic, crushed

l teaspoon flour

pinch sugar

1 1/4 cups beef stock

1 cup water

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon dry sherry or red wine

Heat the butter in a large heavy pan and add onions and garlic. Saute gently, stirring constantly until the onions are golden. Add flour and stir well, then add sugar, stock and water. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add sherry or wine, and simmer a few more minutes. Meanwhile cut 4 thin slices of french bread and sprinkle with grated cheese. Ladle the soup into two heatproof bowls and top each with 2 slices of bread and cheese. Place under a preheated grill and cook until cheese is melted.

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