Italian

You Know French Onion Soup—But Do You Know Its (Less Fussy) Tuscan Mother?

by:
January 19, 2018

Ask a Florentine and they will tell you that onion soup is Tuscan, not French. The Tuscan version, known as carabaccia (pronounced kar-a-ba-cha), is documented in Renaissance recipe books—usually a soup of sliced onions stewed in vegetable broth, thickened with ground almonds, spiced with cinnamon—and it is assumed that the Florentine noblewoman Catherine de' Medici brought the recipe to Paris with her Florentine entourage when she married King Henry II (like many things the Florentines claim theirs, from crêpes to sorbet). It's even said that this soup was a favorite of the Tuscan artist and inventor (and non-meat eater), Leonardo da Vinci.

This soup is not onion-shy. Photo by Emiko Davies

Carabaccia doesn't look like the French onion soup that you're used to. The bread—usually toasted and, if you like, rubbed with garlic—goes in the bottom of the bowl, like in most Tuscan soups, not the top. The cheese is Parmesan, not Gruyere, and the stock is a lighter vegetable stock.

Today's carabaccia is usually a mellower, earthier version of the antique ones, often with Parmesan and a runny-yolked poached egg in it to add creaminess and sustenance. I like to keep mine something that da Vinci may have eaten, so I make a vegetable stock as the base. But if you want a richer soup, feel free to make this with chicken or beef stock. (You could also take a page from the Tuscan cookbook Il Panunto Toscano from 1705, which suggests that some sausages go well in this, as does a good broth of castrated lamb.) A springtime version sees fresh peas and fava (broad) beans in here too, which freshen the soup and add color.

The egg lends creaminess. Photo by Emiko Davies

As Florentine journalist Aldo Santini describes, carabaccia has the “seven virtues” that were noted even in the 16th century: It satisfies hunger and thirst, it facilitates sleep and digestion, it's delicious, gives energy, and makes rosy cheeks. What more can you ask of from your dinner?

Editor's Note: This post originally called this soup vegetarian, but since most Parmesan contains animal rennet, we've amended the terminology.

18 Comments

M2 February 8, 2018
Why no ground almonds in the recipe, per your article?
 
Author Comment
Emiko February 8, 2018
The almonds come directly out of a Renaissance recipe -- it was a very popular addition 500 years ago (not only in soups but also quiches and gruels and porridges), but I think that today's tastes for texture have changed and the carabaccia that you commonly see now is more like this one. Feel free to experiment with adding them, if you like -- the idea was to create a thicker consistency with the addition of ground almonds rather than leave it as a broth.
 
Lynn January 26, 2018
Was inspired to make this soup tonight for dinner.....YUM! I have made the French version for decades, but this is so much simpler. Used a good commercial chicken stock and definitely love the red onions. Had all the ingredients on hand. Sage was an interesting switch from the usual thyme. This is a keeper!
 
Author Comment
Emiko January 27, 2018
Thanks for the feedback, really glad to hear it!
 
Nancy January 22, 2018
Cesare Casella, a Tuscan cook who moved to New York around 2000, has a fine recipe for the spring version, using peas<br />nytimes.com/2004/03/24/dining/the-chef-cesare-casella-toast-egg-and-onions-soup-s-on.html?pagewanted=all<br />@FrugalCat, BTW, I know what you mean about red onions turning some recipes a funny, dull purple color. But his recipe also has them and the soup is golden when finished. But if you prefer white or yellow onions, of course use them.
 
Author Comment
Emiko January 27, 2018
Peas are a wonderful, typical spring addition, often popped in the soup along with fresh fava beans!
 
FrugalCat January 20, 2018
I think yellow onions would be better for this. I don't like the color red onion changes to when cooked.
 
Author Comment
Emiko January 21, 2018
Red onions are historically more traditional as they grow locally to Florence, where this dish originates, but you can absolutely use whatever onions you have on hand!
 
Marie F. January 20, 2018
Oh, sorry, I had no idea! My bad!
 
Thisisnotmyname January 20, 2018
:-)<br /><br />It doesn't seem to be common knowledge. Most restaurant chefs don't know either, which is why vegetarian options on restaurant menus are often not veggie.
 
Marie F. January 20, 2018
I think you mean that Parmesan is not vegan. Vegetarians do eat cheese.
 
Thisisnotmyname January 20, 2018
No, I mean that Parmesan is not vegetarian. It contains animal rennet, usually made from the stomach linings of slaughtered calves. Many cheeses are vegetarian, but Parmesan isn't one of them.
 
JP January 25, 2018
Any animal based cheese is not vegetarian, but lacto-vegetarian.
 
Ron M. January 19, 2018
I'm curious about the recipe, but when I click on it, I get a "page not found" error.
 
Thisisnotmyname January 19, 2018
Parmesan isn't vegetarian. It looks like a tasty soup, but if you want to call it vegetarian, you'll need to use a different cheese.
 
Nikkitha B. January 19, 2018
Thanks for noting! I've amended the piece.
 
Thisisnotmyname January 19, 2018
Wow, thanks for actually reading my comment :-) Thank you.
 
Author Comment
Emiko January 21, 2018
Real Parmesan (along with most traditional Italian cheeses) isn't vegetarian-friendly, it is true, but you can feel free to substitute the Parmesan with any vegetarian (or indeed vegan) friendly cheeses instead. :)