They just wanted the chance to hide away in the kitchen and, in a most undignified manner, scrape off the slightly burned, extra-crisp gratinéed bits stuck to the side of the dish. (I’ll admit I do it too.) In colloquial terms, the gratin of society is the French equivalent of the "cream" of society, just the kind of distinguished people who wouldn’t be caught dead scraping the crispy remains from the side of a dish.
To scrape or scratch
But the rest of us – who throw caution to the wind when it comes to seeming dignified at all times – love our gratin. We brown a dish under the broiler, or in professional kitchens, under a salamander or overhead broiler. Gratiner means to brown or to broil, but that’s not quite right, is it? “Broiled onion soup”?
No, the verb gratiner is related to gratter, to scrape or scratch, which is precisely what my friends do while hiding away in the kitchen. But if you’re eating your own personal gratinéed onion soup, you don’t have to hide anywhere. In fact, I’ve scraped gratin in plain sight in many circumstances, including in a grand old château at five o’clock in the morning.
Soup in a chamber pot?
My ex-husband’s extended family liked to do things the old-fashioned way, so when his cousins got married, they rented a château south of Paris for the entire weekend. The “just marrieds” arrived by helicopter, and dinner and dancing lasted until dawn.
Before we could all retire to our dormitory-style rooms and fall into bed, we had to give chase to the newlyweds, who had gone to bed long before the guests. According to the tradition, we searched for their room (kept a secret) and when we finally found it, tucked away in a hidden corner of the château, we invited them to partake of onion soup – served in a chamber pot! After which all the guests enjoyed a steaming bowl of gratinéed onion soup (served in a bowl).
The restorative broth, hearty croutons, and bubbling cheese – all served in lion’s head bowls (available in Paris at La Vaissellerie) – revived everyone for one last dance before bedtime/morning. And if you ask any French caterer who does weddings, you’ll find that they always know how to make a good gratinéed onion soup.
As for the soup’s invention, legend has it that Louis XV was responsible for the first gratinéed onion soup. One night – probably after some horizontal dancing with one of his alleged 300 mistresses – he had a faim de loup. (Even though I was just a kid back in the 80s, I kind of suspected that Duran Duran didn’t invent the expression “Hungry Like the Wolf.”)
Should you hide?
So King Louis made do with what few ingredients he could find in the kitchen to make some soup: onions, butter, and Champagne. Over time, the soup became a poor man’s repast – without Champagne, but with the addition of simple white wine or slightly more luxurious Calvados (apple brandy). A 1651 recipe from François Pierre La Varenne includes capers and vinegar, but I prefer the no-frills recipe I’ve included below.
So should you hide when scraping the gratin dish? No! Fellow gratinée fan, let us hold our heads high (while also looking down at the gratin dish), and scrape away!