|Onion soup in the marriage bed!|
by Sally Hammond
It is generally agreed that the French have always had a monopoly in the romance department. With Cupid in their corner it seems, while they somehow understand exactly how to maximise the moment of seduction, they still also take sensual delight in many everyday situations. Throw in a celebration and they are never happier.
So picture this. The wedding is over. You have finally shaken off the last of the friends and relations, kissed your family goodbye (or so you thought) and, with a sigh of relief, you stagger upstairs to the honeymoon suite. Just moments later, as you are about to relax, there is a gentle tap at the door, and from the other side, muffled chuckles, excited noises and an unmistakable odour. That smell! Is that, can that actually be – onions?
On investigation, you find two bowls of onion soup proudly presented to you by beaming well-wishers. "Eat it all," they tell you, "We will be back!" And they are – quite soon, to make sure those bowls are good and empty, signifying that you have been properly, finally, launched safely onto the turbulent sea of matrimony.
That would have been the scene at least if you had married in parts of rural France some time back. No one knows the reasons behind the custom, but people still living today remember their mothers and grandmothers recounting tales of bowls of steaming onion soup, their own strange wedding night fare.
There is certainly no doubt that onions are basic to French cuisine. Even the language supports this. 'Occupe-toi de tes oignons' you will be told swiftly – literally, watch your own onions – if a French person thinks you need to mind your own business. Make a scene, and they say you have created 'un spectacle des petits oignons', but take extra care when you do something and they will praise you for making it 'aux petits oignons.' Those same family members who toasted the bride and groom with soup at midnight, will have lined up to kiss them after the ceremony in a queue, described in French as 'en rang d'oignon'.
It is hard to know how the onion soup custom came about. Certainly the dish has been know for some time as a great restorative, although that should perhaps better qualify it for the morning-after, rather than the night before menu. Onions, as indeed all members of the lily family, asparagus included, have long been dubbed aphrodisiacs, so perhaps that may be the link.
Tears and weddings traditionally go together, and onions and tears have a natural affinity too. Although they have been cultivated for 6000 years, still no one has yet developed one that doesn't make us cry. When the slaves building the pyramids were not eating garlic, they ate onions, a tribute to that vegetable's strengthening properties. Hippocrates thought onions were good for the sight, but while love is blind, could this be taking the supposed powers of onions just a bit too far? One 16th-century food writer assured his readers that onions promote sleep. Fine advice, but not necessarily on the wedding-night. How romantic is onion-breath, anyway? Perhaps that is why both the bride and groom were asked to drain the bowls.
Folk-sayings are thick with claims for onions. They make peasants work harder, cure bee stings, frighten away snakes, allow roses to smell sweeter if planted between the bushes, clean out the bowels and reduce blood pressure. If a man sleeps with an onion under his pillow, people were told, he will dream of his future wife.
Modern health experts now accept that onions contain a natural antibiotic but still steer clear of the old claim that onion juice squeezed on a bald head will cause hair to regrow. Even more archaically it was once suggested that onions increase 'lust and lecherye'.
While it is easy on the edge of a new millennium to sneer at simple wisdom, perhaps the French knew something we don't, for onion soup is a great dish at any time of the day or night. Maybe the custom is worth reviving. With a bit of luck it might just arouse the passions, restore your strength, or, at its worst, merely lull you both into a sound night's sleep.
WHAT WOULD YOU recommend that a newly married couple should eat?
A recent study by a team of Spanish and British scientists has identified different nutritional benefits within the layers of onions. They found that onions are rich in nutrition, even those layers that are typically discarded.
The scientists from the Department of Agricultural Chemistry at the Autonomous University of Madrid and Cranfield University in the United Kingdom have just published their results in journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition.
The scientists had carried out laboratory experiments to identify the make-up and possible uses of each part of an onion.
According to the study, the brown skin of an onion is high in non-soluble dietary fibre and has antioxidant capabilities.
“Eating fibre reduces the risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal complaints, colon cancer, type-2 diabetes and obesity,” said researcher Vanesa Benitez.
Antioxidants, on the other hand, help to prevent coronary heart disease and have anti-carcinogenic properties.
The inner layers of an onion contain prebiotics that selectively stimulate colon growth and activity. The sulphurous compounds in the inner layers can also help to improve blood flow and cardiovascular health by reducing the accumulation of platelets.
Sulphurous compounds are also beneficial to the antioxidant and anti-inflamatory systems of mammals.
“The results show that it would be useful to separate the different parts of onions produced during the industrial process,” said Benítez. “This would enable them to be used as a source of functional compounds to be added to other foodstuffs.”
There has been a trend in recent times for food companies to seek to include additional nutritional properties such as antioxidants, dietary fibre and prebiotics on their products. This study may be helpful in developing further functional claims.
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