The French Onion Soup Revolution

Back in the 1960’s we first heard of French Onion Soup and better yet, tasted it. The food revolution that was occurring at that time was more profound than what has occurred in food over the last twenty or so years. Food in Australia was dull and predictable. With lots of respect and love to my own mother, the CWA, my many aunts and uncles, it was often badly cooked. Great home cooking was not part of the ethos, war, climate and the simple expedient of having to feed a family were more important.


The changes that began in the 1950’s had a major effect on so many facets of life, fashion, food, lifestyle, music and so much more. My parents were not happy to see the values that they held dear and tried to pass on to their children, swept away. But swept away they were. What replaced them may have been in many cases a bit extreme as people explored the new way of living. It was an exciting time.


We learned to enjoy wine, we learned that the fairly dull English food we had been brought up on and so unsuited to Australia, was not the only way. Mediterranean migrants started to come in and make drastic changes, we saw garlic, olive oil, pasta, different preserves. We ate bread that was crusty and robust. We began to realise that enjoying food and wine now offered many choices. We began to explore them all.


The food guru’s emerged, people like Graeme Kerr, Peter Russell Clark, Margaret Fulton, Greta Anna, Beverley Sutherland-Smith, Julia Child, Elizabeth David and so many others. The magazines and television came alive with this new way of cooking. All of us absorbed it and changed the way we thought about food and wine.



The equipment most of us had collected in our kitchens from wedding presents and family was woefully inadequate to cope with the demands of the food revolution. Until I bought a Mouli and then a MagiMix I was not able to make Paté. French Onion soup ‘demanded’ the proper bowls. We had not even considered a quiche, we needed the proper tin ware. How could you make a Tortenguss unless you had the proper tin, and of course Dr Outka’s glaze… very hard to find.


Life was changing fast, very fast and we all occasionally struggled to keep up, even the times when drugs started to appear and become popular were a challenge. I chose not to use them, many gave them a try, some adopted what became known as a hippy lifestyle to support their habits. Those of us who did not use marijuana but drank wine were called juice freaks.


We all developed attitude, I drove home to Port Fairy, dressed in black head to toe, gold chain swinging (still got them, maybe time to revive?) I gave the locals a lot of attitude and looked down my nose at the way they lived. It wasn’t meant to be harmful, it was just me in a fuck you sort of mood. The politicians and those in power were completely confused about how to deal with us, we protested, marched and complained. We were anti war, anti Atomic Bomb and disdainful of most politicians. Often with justification. And some said, anti establishment.


The CWA and similar groups of women and men who had contributed enormously to the growth of Australia must have been astounded. Must have wondered what was happening. Theatre was keeping pace with the changes, we saw nudity on stage for the first time with Hair and Oh Calcutta.


The kitchen in Australia was the quiet revolution, it witnessed the greatest change and growth. Pate, Quiche, Terrines, Soups, Salad and salad dressings, Garlic, Olive Oil, Wine Vinegars, Mushrooms, Spices, Fish, (Octopus, shellfish) Chicken, Coffee, Wine, Bread (Mostly Italian), Pasta, Rice, Vegetables (Aubergine, Asian greens, Zuccini, Broccoli, Artichoke, Fennel). We ate differently and experimented, we wanted to try new things, cast out the old and embrace the new. Most of us had never eaten vegetables other than potato, peas, carrots, pumpkin and iceberg lettuce. My family thought salad dressing was always creamy white and sweet. My mothers acknowledgement of the exotic was pickled onions and pickled beetroot. Garlic was something that she never ever came to grips with, to her it smelled and tasted awful.


Who had ever heard of roasting beetroot and serving it drizzled with olive oil and mint. Fetta cheese and Filo Pastry, unknown in Swintons Grocery in Warrnambool, but soon a staple. We were all for throwing the baby out with the bath water, but thankfully sense prevailed and some of the things that were great from those times did last, great baking, excellent roast dinners, and some of the food rituals. I was taken to dinner by my Aunt, the restaurant was called Mario’s in Melbourne CBD, it was for me a completely new and different world. I ordered the spatchcock, we only ever ate chicken/chook at Xmas time, but that was to dramatically change. When Dad killed a chook for the Xmas table, it was one that was way past its use by date for eggs and was round, plump and well muscled. The challenge was to clean it and I still remember the smell of warm wet chicken feathers and plucking the dam ‘pin’ feathers out with an old pair of pliers. As chickens became more and more common and thus more accessible, the quality of the birds was more suspect.


My mother thought that Olive Oil was for warming on a spoon with a sugar cube and taking it for a sore throat, or if you had ear ache, a splodge of olive oil could help. It was purely medicinal. Indeed all oils were considered in that vein.


Food markets became the places to find all the newest foods, we all trudged in there with our shopping carts (unchanged I note) and bought the latest. We would go down to Johnny the Greek and buy a few of the great stuffed capsicums or tomatoes he cooked in huge trays and go home and try the same. My Italian friend at last felt able to introduce us all to the sorts of foods he had grown up on from Southern Italy… his way with barbecued fish was delicious and the whole world of pasta began to open up to us. One of the first Italian restaurants in Melbourne was in Carlton and called Cafe Sport, upstairs amongst the smarter newly sprung up Mediterranean restaurants, Cafe Sport was run by a bunch of Italian women and was the sort of food they would cook for their own families… it was a complete revelation.



There was a day when ‘Chicken a la King’ appeared on the menu’s of some very upmarket eating establishments. It was a simple matter of fried chicken, fried mushrooms in a cream sauce, but it was considered very smart. I recall being out to dinner in a city restaurant that was run by an Italian/Irish combination, called Alfredo’s after him, but the real boss was the Irish wife. The style they adopted was fabulous, the Italian chef would come to your table with a trolley of fresh ingredients he had purchased from the market, He would then discuss with you how he would like to cook it. That evening he suggested the ‘real’ version of Chicken a la King (at he time it was in at almost every function to offer this dish and it was, not to put too finer point on it, appalling) it was a complete eye opener. Utterly delicious. On a return visit to the restaurant, the chef was taken ill and my Italian friend and I temporarily took over the kitchen. Result? not bad!!


Chicken a la King…

1.5 kilo of chicken meat that is taken from the bones of a chicken you have poached in 1 cup water, 1 cup white wine (this can be replaced with water for the non drinker, or with dry vermouth, 10 black pepper corns, a couple of bay leaves, a stick of celery chopped, a carrot chopped. Gently poach the chicken, allow to cool and remove the bones and discard the skin, put the bones back into the stock and cook for a further 30 minutes to make it richer, strain the stock and set aside. When the chicken fat has risen to the surface, skim it off.

2 tablespoons chicken fat from the poaching.

2 tablespoons of finely chopped onion

1 green pepper chopped (I have a tendency to use the potato peeler and take as much of the skin off as possible…my preference)

1.5 cups sliced fresh mushrooms (Swiss Browns)

1 cup (or more) of chicken stock (taken from the pan in which you poached the chicken)

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons of plain flour

175 mil cream.

In the chicken fat, fry the onion and the green capsicum until starting to colour. Remove and set aside (in the heavy based casserole that can be used in the oven). Fry the mushrooms until cooked and place with the onions and mushrooms. Remove any remaining chicken fat. Add the butter to the pan and then with a whisk, mix in the flour, over heat add the chicken stock and cream and make a rich sauce. Season the sauce with some salt and pepper, you can also add some smoked paprika and a pinch of cayenne. If too thick, add some more stock. It should be like a thickish custard. Add the sauce to the vegetables and now fold in the chicken meat. Place in a preheated 180 celcius oven and cook for 35-40 minutes until bubbling. Serve over rice.


Keep the rest of the stock in the freezer for your next soup or sauce. Stock freezes well.


When first married the mother of my children and I lived (eventually) in a great town house in South Yarra, lovely old Art Deco building that had a great rear garden complete with a couple of huge trees, we were allowed to do as we wished and it was painted, glazed, buffed and polished to suit our status as one of Melbourne Interior Designers. Jennifer was pregnant with our first child and as was common in those days, did not work in her job as a secretary, but with me in the retail shop we had in South Yarra. It was while living in that house and perhaps the one that followed, that we started to explore food and expand out food world in ways we had not dreamed possible. Even the birth of our first child did not slow up the eating out and in.


This is the French Onion Soup we have always used. We have always cooked it with Vermouth and I confess to extra onions and to the garlic option. Long slow cooking of the onions is the key to a rich soup.


French Onion Soup

One of the favourites of the seventies, this soup can be added to in many ways. You can add garlic, extra onions, replace some of the stock for a good wine (vermouth was traditional) Double the recipe, it keeps well and is delicious reheated.


500gr (1lb) of brown onions cut into slices

60gr (2oz) butter

1 tblspn of flour

1/4 tspns of sugar (it helps the onions brown)

1 litre of good well flavoured beef stock, (I use a heaped teaspoon of vegemite in the stock for extra zing.)

1 fresh bread stick or loaf

Gruyere cheese


Melt the butter in the bottom of a good heavy saucepan, add the onions and the sugar, cook slowly to a good brown so that they are almost melting, add the flour and stir to distribute and cook the flour a little, add the stock and vermouth (if using) and cook at a simmer with the lid off, for 30 minutes.

Toast slices of the bread and top with a generous quantity of cheese, place these in the bottom of a soup bowl, top with the soup and place them quickly under the griller to melt and brown the cheese slightly.



~ by peterwatson on June 19, 2013.

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