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, Ortolan is probably closest to the mark. Bouillabaisse is a fisherman’s dish, and fishermen everywhere have traditionally eaten whatever portion of their catch wouldn’t bring much at the market – in this case prosaic rockfish too bony for restaurants, and minor varieties of shellfish. The simplest way to cook these creatures was over a wood fire on the beach, in a cauldron of sea water with local seasonings – olive oil, garlic and herbs in the case of Provence. Somebody figured out, along the way, that a furious boil had the effect of emulsifying the oil and fish juices and thickening the broth, and bouillabaisse was born.
The soup’s name comes from a Provençal Occitan term variously rendered as bouiabaisso, boulh-abaisso, or bolhabaissa, in turn a compound of the verbs “to boil” and “to lower” (ie to turn down the heat). The terms describe the old method for making the dish, whereby the fish and shellfish were added to the boiling liquid one at a time. Each time something new went into the pot, the temperature of the liquid went down; when it returned to a boil, it was time to add the next participant.
By the mid-19th century, bouillabaisse had found its way from fishermen’s quarters into restaurants and hotel dining rooms in Marseille and along the Mediterranean coast. Expensive ingredients such as saffron and langoustines were added, and some establishments – like that little place in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin – began boning the fish for customers to make the experience as refined as possible. By the turn of the last century, this humble fisherman’s mishmash had become commonplace, even in Paris.
As the popularity of bouillabaisse grew, so did its mythic weight. It was a heraldic specialty, we were told – the very soul of Marseille, the very definition of the Mediterranean. It was a soup to dream about, to special-order, to make pilgrimages for. Strictures applying to its proper preparation proliferated. Experts on the subject – chefs, food writers, and occasionally even actual fishermen – pontificated, but rarely agreed. Potatoes aren’t authentic to true bouillabaisse, or are they? Fennel is a legitimate ingredient, or is it only fennel fronds? Onions spoil the broth, or do they make it better? Tomatoes are an abomination in bouillabaisse – unless of course they’re an essential ingredient. Some bouillabaisse chefs consider sea urchins to be an indispensible ingredient, while others scoff at the idea. Mussels, crab, langoustines? Yes. Or no. Oh, and, as noted above, it’s impossible to make an authentic bouillabaisse without the ugly if admittedly tasty Mediterranean fish called rascasse. Or maybe it’s without the holy bouillabaisse trinity of rascasse, grondin and conger eel. Or even, perhaps, as some would-be authorities maintain, without exactly seven kinds of fish (those three included). In 1980, a group of Marseille restaurateurs even went so far as to draft a Bouillabaisse Charter that outlined the ingredients and how the dish was to be served.
I’m afraid that I find all this rather tiresome, and thoroughly beside the point. Sorry, Marseille, but bouillabaisse has become sort of silly. It’s an idea of a dish, a fantasy, rather than something that’s actually enjoyable to eat. What was once the simplest of soups, cooked out of thriftiness and necessity, has become an extravagance that takes a tremendous amount of time and expense and trouble to put together “properly”. Unless you are in fact a Provençal fisherman – and one operating in an alternative universe in which all that formerly junk fish is still really cheap and not worth selling – I can’t imagine why you’d bother.
Since when has boiling been the best way to cook fish? I guarantee you that grilling, roasting, or frying – depending on the variety and size of the fish – will yield a more delicious portion. (The best rascasse I ever had was a roasted one, served with olive oil-mashed potatoes, at Le Bistrot du Dôme in Paris.) And why mix numerous kinds of frankly similar-tasting fish together on the same plate, other than to just show off the abundance of your, er, catch? I think it’s time for serious eaters the world around to challenge the myth of bouillabaisse, and denounce the dish for what it is: a cliché and a corruption. Leave it for shipwrecked saints. Stop wasting fish.
The myth behind bouillabaisse, France’s most lauded fish dish, needs to be challenged, writes Colman Andrews.