Monmartre embodies the most romantic side of Paris. From the stark beauty of the Sacré Coeur basilica to the cobbled streets that wind through the neighbourhood and the lively bars and cafés on every corner, it is easy to see why generations of artists came here to work, carouse, and create La Vie Bohème! Picasso, Degas, van Gogh, Matisse, and many others lived here, experimented with new styles and in the process invented modern art.
It is still possible to see glimpses of the windmills and vineyards that formed part of the original village of Montmartre, but it has become too popular a place for many rustic charms to survive. So many films have been made with Montmartre as a backdrop that it is well known around the world, attracting thousands of tourists every year.
However, when you walk through one of its narrow alleys late at night after the crowds have gone home, you can still imagine what it was like a century ago. The steep, narrow, atmospheric streets and the lovely, gracious buildings lining them evoke a sense of days gone by.
In spite of the popular image of Monmartre artists and their models starving in freezing attics, reinforced by countless songs, books and movies, one can eat very well there. Cafes, bistros and bars set up impromptu seating on footpaths, street corners and squares. The sounds of laughter, conversation and the clinking of cutlery mingle with inviting aromas wafting around.
Although we ate in many a brasserie, Cafe Wepler was one of the most memorable. For over a hundred years Wepler has been the hangout of choice for artists, writers and famous personalities and it is still impressive with it's food, furnishings and art. My favourite bistro dish, and one that I invariably ordered everywhere, is French onion soup. I just love how it's warm, comforting flavours fill me up with contentment!
You too can create that Paris bistro feeling with this easy, satisfying recipe. The secret to deep, rich flavour is in the sautéing of onions. They have to be done long and slow to develop that characteristic sweetness, colour and aroma of this soup.
For a delicious and unusual variation, try French Onion Soup with Lamb, or another Paris bistro classic - Croque Monsieur.
French Onion Soup
2 tbsp each: unsalted butter, olive oil
1 large sprig of thyme
2 large onions (such as Vidalia or Spanish), halved and thinly sliced, about 4 cups
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp all purpose flour
1 cup dry white wine
900 ml broth, chicken or beef
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp each: ground black pepper, smoked paprika
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
4 thick slices of baguette
4 slices Gruyere cheese
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish, optional
Warm butter and oil in deep heavy skillet set over medium heat.
Add thyme and onions. Sauté, stirring occasionally until all the liquid is cooked off and onions are lightly browned, about 30 min.
Add sugar; continue to stir and sauté onions until they are a deeper brown, about 15 more min.
Add flour, cook 1 min.
Add wine and cook for 1 min until it bubbles, scraping up the burnt brown bits sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Add broth, salt, pepper, paprika and vinegar, stirring well to incorporate.
Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 1 hour until onions are very soft and soup is slightly thickened. Remove thyme sprig.
Ladle soup into 4 individual oven proof bowls. Preheat broiler in oven.
Toast baguette slices lightly and top each bowl with a slice. Lay the sliced cheese over top. Place all the bowls on a large oven safe tray.
Place tray with soup bowls about 8 inches away from broiler and broil until cheese melts and browns lightly, about 1-2 min. Sprinkle parsley over top, if using.