I love Paris in the winter. Or, frankly, anytime of year. But especially winter…
My first trip to Paris was in the spring of 1990 while “backpacking”, or should I say “hostelling” and “cheap hotelling” across Europe with my two best childhood friends. The trip, a college graduation gift from all of our parents. The town was packed, as are most European cities in the spring and summer, thanks to tourists like us. Despite the crowds, Paris, as they say, is truly lovely in the spring.
The last time I went to Paris, however, was in the winter of 2004, for a quick birthday trip from New York with my friend Mel. Now this is something I could experience on a regular basis.
There was an unbelievable lack of tourists – I felt Parisian, wrapped in a scarf and tweed coat – as we strolled the streets in the gentle rain.
The skies were a chilly shade of gray, reminiscent of those gorgeous WWII era black and white photos, and the wind chills to the bone.
Warm and cozy cafes beckoned us in, with seats to be had – and there is nothing better on a chilly November day than a cup of creamy café au lait and a crisp yet steaming fresh-baked croissant.
We spent an evening parked in the bar of the Hotel Georges V, one of the most divine locations in the world. The five-star Four Seasons hotel was opened in 1928 on Avenue Georges V, named, as was the hotel, after King George V. We popped in for one drink, but after we experienced this life-changing cocktail (which I have tried to recreate to no avail on many an occasion) we settled in to comfy leather chairs by the fire…and had two more. The drink consists of merely three ingredients, but it was the way they were lovingly layered in the crystal flute that kept us wanting more. A layer of fresh raspberry puree coated the bottom and was topped off with a few glugs of Cognac, followed by a hearty pour of French Champagne. This drink was by no means a bargain, but will always be an essential treat on any trip to Paris.
The next evening we tucked in to the tiny bistro L’Ecluse, just near the Georges V on Rue Francois 1er. The special of the house is pasta, but forget about the sauce – all that’s stirred in to this luxurious house-made taglietelle is cubes of foie gras and thinly sliced Serrano ham. The fat melts among the noodles, and coats your mouth with its decadence. The only pairing required is a nice big glass of house red with which to wash it down. On another note, this is one of the only places in the world where you can get Chateau d’Yquem by the glass…another perfect pairing for foie gras.
Luxury aside, chilly Paris has dozens of other comforting French dishes to offer. From steak and frites dipped into housemade mayonnaise to lusty beef bourguignon to garlicky escargots draped with herbed butter. But one of my favorite go-to dishes on a cold winter’s day, in Paris or otherwise, combines sweet caramelized onions with rich beef stock and melty Gruyere cheese. Soup à l’oignon gratinée, or French Onion Soup as we have come to know it, is a favorite in most Parisian bistros, as well as in my home kitchen.
Made with as little as 3 ingredients – onions, butter and beef stock – and as many as a dozen, this go-to dish can be made a day or so ahead of serving for the flavor always seems to improve with a little bit of time. The cheesy crouton layer on top is, of course, optional, but I have never made this soup without its melty garnish.
Over the last few days, my heart has been with Paris as the city mourns many losses and tries to pick itself back up…
Je suis Charlie.
Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée (French Onion Soup)
Serves 6 to 8
Thinly slice 1½ pounds of yellow onions and 4 cloves of garlic. Heat 4 tablespoons butter in a heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes, being careful not to brown. Uncover the pot, raise the heat to medium and stir in 1 teaspoon each of coarse salt and sugar. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep, golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes. Sprinkle in 3 tablespoons flour and stir to coat the onions well – cook the mixture for 3 minutes. In a separate pan, bring 8 cups of beef broth to a boil then add to the onion mixture. Stir in ½ cup dry white vermouth or white wine. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Just before serving, stir in 3 tablespoons Cognac.
To take the soup to another level entirely, and one that we are all perhaps used to, heat oven to 350°. Ladle the hot soup into individual oven-proof soup bowls or tureens. Float a few rounds of hard-toasted, sliced French bread over the top and sprinkle with grated Gruyere cheese (about ¼ cup grated cheese per bowl). Sprinkle a few drops of olive oil over the top and bake until the cheese melts. Flip on the broiler for a minute or two to brown the tops slightly if desired, and then serve immediately.