Packed with hearty vegetables, ham, and pantry staples, classic French lentil soup is on heavy rotation across French households during the winter. The key ingredient to this staple dish is a French culinary treasure: nutty, firm, and nutrient-rich Le Puy lentils, which make it both healthy and filling.
Whether you’re looking to lighten up your meals in January or simply warm up with a comforting bowl of soup, it’s a great recipe to add to your repertoire.
Getting to Know French Lentils
Known in France as “poor man’s caviar,” Puy lentils—often referred to as French lentils in North America—are a prized French pulse, beloved amongst French home cooks for making soups and salads and to accompany meat or fish in lieu of potatoes.
Not to be confused with your typical green lentils, Puy lentils are a particular strain of French green lentils, darker in hue, smaller in size, and rich in protein and fiber. They’re praised for their unique nutty and peppery flavor and for their ability to hold their texture better than other lentils during cooking.
They’re the perfect illustration of the importance of terroir—meaning their taste, texture, and color are a product of the environment in which they’re produced.
A Taste of French Terroir
Puy lentils are named after the Le Puy-en-Velay area where they are produced, in the volcanic Auvergne region of central France. The first harvests are said to date back to more than 2,000 years ago, during the Roman age.
The Auvergne region’s mineral-rich volcanic soil gives Puy lentils their fine, nutty, and peppery taste, while the dry and sunny climate encourages the lentils to start to dry on the plant on their own, resulting in a less starchy texture and better-preserved shape after cooking. Their green hue, with metallic blue shadows, is caused by the presence of the anthocyanin pigment, stimulated by a high light intensity (this pigment can be also found in blueberries, grapes, and most blue flowers).
Over the centuries, the reputation of these green lentils grew—so much so that Russian botanist Helena Barulinda officially named them “Lens culinaris puyensis,” or “Puy lentils,” in 1930, in honor of their city of origin.
The lentils’ fame soon attracted flocks of merchants to the area and turned Le Puy-en-Velay into a trading hub for pulses and dried vegetables. But with no rules in place, fraudulent merchants soon started to import German and Russian green lentils to then resell labeled as Le Puy for larger profits. In 1935, Le Puy lentil farmers acted to defend the authenticity of their product and had the local civil court grant the lentil its first “protected origin” certification.
In 1996, Puy lentils received the official French AOC label (Appellation d’origine contrôlée/Controlled Designation of Origin) and an EU AOP (Appellation d’origine protegée/Protected Designation of Origin) label in 2008. Both labels guarantee that the lentils are grown without fertilizers in Auvergne and are harvested and conditioned under strict specifications.
Today, Puy lentils are exported to more than 70 countries worldwide and remain the pride of Auvergne. As with other French ingredients or specialties, the protection and promotion of Le Puy lentils are also guaranteed by a brotherhood, La Verte Confrérie de la Lentille du Puy, founded in 1995.
Shopping for Le Puy Lentils
In North America, you should be able to find Puy lentils at your grocery store next to other lentil varieties. They’re slightly pricier, but they’re worth the splurge. If you can’t find them in store, there are also several options online for purchasing them.
However you purchase them, make sure the package says “Puy lentils” and bears a red and yellow AOP seal on the package. If the bag is marked as simply “French lentils,” chances are they were grown in North America or Italy rather than in France.
Classic French Lentil Soup
Puy lentils are the stars of this recipe, but they can be substituted with common green or brown lentils as a more affordable option. Cooking times can remain the same, but the soup will be a bit thicker and creamier in texture, as other lentil varieties are starchier.
For the ham, choose an “original” or “traditional black forest” ham (not flavored options, such as brown sugar or honey maple). To make this soup vegetarian, you can simply omit the ham.
This soup will keep well in an airtight container for 3 to 4 days in the fridge and for up to 3 months in the freezer. The day before you’re ready to serve, thaw in the fridge overnight and reheat it on the stovetop over medium heat.
Serves 6 as a starter, or 4 as a main
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 1/2 ounces ham, cubed
- 1 medium onion, peeled and diced
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
- 3 celery stalks, diced (reserve leaves for garnish)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 28-ounce can no salt added diced tomatoes
- 1 1/2 cup Puy lentils
- 4 cups vegetable broth
Heat the extra-virgin olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the cubed ham and cook for about 5 minutes, until the ham is lightly seared and fragrant. Add the onion and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the carrots, celery, salt, smoked paprika, cumin, thyme, and pepper and cook for 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the diced tomatoes, lentils, and broth. Stir to combine and lower the heat to medium-low. Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid, and cook for 40 minutes or until the lentils are al dente.
Transfer about 2 cups of the soup to a blender and puree until smooth. Stir the puree back into the pot with the rest of the soup. The soup should be creamy with some chunks. If it’s too thick, you can thin it out by adding 1/4 cup of water at a time. Turn off the heat and season to taste with salt and black pepper.
Serve in individual bowls with a few chopped celery leaves for garnish.