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Just when you thought the Arctic winter had arrived in Britain emphatically enough to enjoy contemplating (besides watching the entire country grind to a halt) a delightful, warming, sun-filled Mediterranean delicacy, another balmy Christmas arrives, the snow melts, the sales begin, and you can almost sense the green shoots. Never mind: in Marseille the bouillabaisse, the traditional Marseillaise fish stew and the typical local dish par excellence, is always on the boil, or on the table.
As always there are regional variations of this delicacy, leading to the usual heated discussions as to which is the most historically authentic version, not to mention which is the most delicious. Certainly every fishing people in history will have bunged bits of the daily catch into the pot, added salt, veg, and boiled until edible. A likely ancestor of today’s bouillabaisse is probably the Greek kavakia (fish soup) – Marseille was founded around 600 BC by Greeks from Phocaea – via the Romans: their myth has it that Venus fed a hearty fish stew to her husband Vulcan, to put him to sleep while she cavorted with Mars. The distinguished French chef Raymond Oliver, in his Gastronomy of France, refers to a mention of the dish in a 1785 dictionary, and traces its evolution to early Greek settlements in Sicily. Stendhal mentions in his travel diaries an encounter in 1806 with a dish called “bouille-à-baisses”. It is certainly an ancient fisherman’s dish, who in preparing his catch for the market would have put aside bits for his own family table, usually bony rockfish and shellfish that would have come up with the nets along with the more marketable and expensive varieties, and even in its modern gourmet refinements, as its popularity spread from the fishing ports to the affluent societies of Marseille and Paris, the dish has always retained an amiable family-style honesty.
The real “magical synthesis” of bouillabaisse, as the well-known provençal food author Jean-Noël Escudier christens it, comes from the particular combination of local fish, some of which are deemed to be indispensable to an authentic rendition, and which give the bouillabaisse its particular taste. First among these equals is the rascasse, or scorpion fish: the Michelin Green Guide deems it to be the one essential fish among the four sine-qua-non elements of a true bouillabaisse, the others being an excellent saffron, olive oil, and for the fish to be ultra-fresh: perhaps just off the boat at the daily fish market at the Quai des Belges in Marseille’s Vieux Port. Most chefs however will also insist on several other fish varieties to be present, especially rouget grondin (sea robin), spider crab, and European conger. Optional but most welcome onto the platter would be John Dory, monkfish, bream, hake, and a variety of crustaceans: urchins (prevalent in the waters near Marseille), small crabs (étrilles), octopus (in one unique variant), and in up-market versions, langoustines.
The real trick in preparing the dish is to add the fish to the boiling cauldron in the right order, from thickest to the smallest and most delicate, preserving the proper texture of the flesh. Hence the name, as the pot is brought to the boil (bouillir), and then the heat is lowered (abaisser), until the next step. Other ingredients for the soup include salt, onions, pepper, fennel, saffron, parsley, olive oil, potatoes (mainly in Toulon varieties), garlic, tomatoes, celery, orange peel, and bay leaf; it is the unique tastes derived from the combination of these many magical flavours that so captivate the bouillabaisse lover.
See the award-winning recipe by Christian Buffa of Le Miramar restaurant (see below), but basically the broth is first prepared by boiling the vegetables and spices together with small rockfish, crustacean shells and other offcuts from the preparation, into a thick paste from which the solid residue is then discarded. In this soupe d’or, as the famous French gourmet Curnonsky called it, the cut fish and prepared shellfish will be boiled, then at the end removed and served separately on a platter. The bouillon is served in deep dishes where the pieces of fish can be added, if desired, or the soup can be eaten separately, with toasted croutons rubbed with garlic and served with a “rouille” (named after its rusty colour) made from garlic, olive oil, saffron, and cayenne pepper, and/or with an aïoli paste for that extra garlic hit. And wherever you are, and whatever the weather, the sun will be shining.
Three of the best-known restaurants in Marseille for traditional bouillabaisse are:
Le Miramar www.bouillabaisse.com
Chez Fonfon www.chez-fonfon.com
L’Esplaï de Grand Bar des Goudes www.grandbardesgoudes.com
If you find yourself in Marseille for a while you can even take classes in preparing bouillabaisse; contact the Office du Tourisme for details. www.marseille-tourisme.com
The Miramar restaurant's own recipe:
For 8 persons
2 St Pierre
4 Gallinettes (rouget grondin)
1 Lotte (baudroie)
1 Fielas (congre)
2 kilos rock fish
salt, pepper, 2 medium-sized onions, 3 cloves garlic, saffron, tomato concentrate, olive oil, fennel (fresh and seeds), parsley, potatoes, 3 tomatoes, 2 kilos of rock fish, 2 glasses of pastis
Cut the onions, crush the garlic and fry in 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Cut the tomatoes in quarters. Add 1 tablespoon of tomato concentrate, the tomatoes, some fennel seeds and 2 doses of saffron. Add the 2 kilos of rock fish and cover with water up to 4cm over the fish. Add salt and pepper, and cook for 20 minutes. Mix carefully, filter the soup and cook for another 10 minutes. Put aside.
1. Peel and slice the potatoes in 2cm rounds and add to the soup.
2. Place all the fish in size order (largest to smallest) on top of the potatoes: rougets, vives, st pierre, baudroie, congre, chapon, (if possible: cigales de mer ou langouste).
3.Wet the fish with the remaining soup until they are completely covered. Check the seasoning. Add the saffron. Start cooking on a high flame for 5 minutes then lower the heat for 30 minutes.
4. Prepare the rouille. Mix 3 egg yolks as for an aïoli. Add salt, minced garlic, olive oil and a little saffron.
5. Make the croutons by slicing the bread, rub the pieces with garlic, imbibe with olive oil and put in oven at 220°.
Put a spoonful of rouille on the croutons. Serve the soup in small dishes and decorate with the croutons.
Serve the fish separately.
Chef's secret: Before serving the broth whisk in a good dose of pastis.