I first realised that bouillabaisse was a big deal one late spring afternoon in the early 1980s, sitting in the homey dining room of a small hotel perched vertiginously on a cliff above the Mediterranean.
Bouillabaisse wasn’t a complete mystery to me at the time: growing up in southern California, I’d encountered something under that peculiar vowel-filled name a few times in local French restaurants, where it was a kind of stew in which mussels, clams, shrimp, and several kinds of white-fleshed fish lurked in a garlicky, saffron-tinted broth.
At this place in the Mediterranean, though, a mile or so east of Monaco in the village of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, it turned out to be something else entirely. The experience began when Madame set a plate of dry (not toasted) baguette slices and a well-worn metal cauldron of steaming, slightly foamy reddish-brown broth down on the table. She disappeared for a moment, then returned with a tray bearing a mortar and pestle, a cruet of golden olive oil, a saucer bearing three peeled cloves of garlic, and little bowls containing an egg yolk, coarse salt, cayenne, and some threads of saffron. She scattered salt into the mortar, added the garlic, and began to crush it with the pestle, while pouring in a stream of oil. She next worked in the egg yolk, thickening the mixture into a dense paste. She added a pinch of cayenne, then crushed the saffron threads between her fingers into the mortar and gave it a final stir. “La rouille” she announced. Then she ladled broth into two wide, shallow bowls and said, “Put the rouille on the toast and the toast into the soup.”
Was this bouillabaisse? We followed her instructions. Where was all the fish? We had taken but a few bites of our soup – which was intensely flavoured, faintly spicy, and thoroughly delicious – when we got our answer. Madame’s husband – a cordial, white-haired, slightly rakish-looking gentleman – arrived bearing an immense free-form cork platter three feet across, on which was arrayed a fish market’s worth of sea creatures: elegantly streamlined salmon-red grondin (sea robin), luminescent wrasse, and spiky orange rascasse (scorpionfish; the one fish that is supposedly absolutely indispensible for bouillabaisse, we later learned), all whole; fleshy conger eel steaks; the muddy-hued little crabs the French call étrilles; a scattering of mussels…
As we ate our soup, the patron went to work, laboriously boning and shelling everything before our eyes – the process took almost half an hour – and arranging it on a platter. When at last he set his handiwork down on the table, we were hungry with anticipation and just plain peckish. He cleared our soup bowls, set down large plates in their place, and gestured theatrically. “Voilà,” he said. We dug in, expecting an epiphany. What we got was a bunch of boiled seafood, obviously very fresh and of good quality, but, well, boiled. Oh, and fearsomely expensive.
There is almost certainly no fish dish of any kind that is more celebrated, written about, argued over, and laden down with folderol and fable than bouillabaisse. Nobody knows for certain when this epic concoction – native to coastal Provence and particularly to the stretch between Marseilles and Toulon – was invented, or by whom, but seafood cooked in a pot full of water is probably as old as pots themselves. References to fish stews appear in ancient Greece and Rome; according to a Roman legend, Venus fed one to Vulcan, her husband, to lull him to sleep so that she could get up to no good. Curnonsky, the so-called Prince of Gastronomes, on the other hand, maintained that bouillabaisse was brought from heaven by angels to feed shipwrecked saints. Rather more prosaically, the engineer JA Ortolan wrote, back in 1891, that bouillabaisse was invented, and named, by a fisherman named Conradi, from St-Raphaël, about 150 kilometres east of Marseille.
Though the specifics are highly suspect,