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How to make bouillabaisse with Damien Pignolet

This Provençal staple may have had humble beginnings, but it’s the undisputed king of fish stews.

By Damien Pignolet
  • 1 hr 30 mins preparation
  • 1 hr 30 mins cooking plus resting
  • Serves 6 - 8
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The word "bouillabaisse" is a contraction of bouillir (to boil) and abaisser (to reduce), or "bouillon abaissé", reduced broth. It takes us back to the origin of this initially humble fishermen's dish. The fishermen of Marseille or their wives would make a fire on the beach and boil the small, bony least saleable yet flavourful catch in a cauldron. It seems olive oil came into use later but I imagine onions, garlic and tomatoes would have played a role. It's a glorious dish, its magic lying in its intensity of flavour, scent and its visual presentation.
My mentor in the art of bouillabaisse was Claude Corne, the founder of Claude's French Restaurant in Sydney, which my then-wife, Josephine, and I bought in 1981. Claude served it on the first Friday of each month.

Step 1: To make bouillon, rinse seafood

He would start the day before by making a full-flavoured Provençal fish soup using much the same fish and vegetables that would go in the final dish.

Step 2: Bring slowly to the boil, then simmer gently

Step 3: Strain bouillon

The key to the authentic flavour was in the smashing and pounding of the ingredients through a cone-shaped sieve, or chinois, using a conical wooden pestle. The soup was cooked for an hour and never skimmed, then left for another hour to settle and mature before the step that brings the flavour: the reduction.

Step 4: Bake baguette croûtons

The croûtons call for the simplest of baguettes (not sourdough, which becomes hard when oven-dried) and, finally, plenty of freshly chopped parsley.

Step 5: Pound rouille

A magnificent traditional sauce, la rouille ("rust" for the colour extracted from the chillies), was made by reducing some of the soup to an essence, adding dry bread and pounding it with chillies, garlic, saffron, and a touch of mustard before adding egg yolks and making a mayonnaise with extra-virgin olive oil.

Step 6: Layer remaining seafood in baking pans

We'd go to the market to find seven varieties of fish and two or three types of shellfish. If we were in luck, we'd find tiny red spot whiting and red mullet, the latter being critical, like rock cod. Blue swimmer crabs, prawns and lobster were added for depth of flavour, while leatherjackets and flathead provided the middle palate, snapper, John Dory, whiting and blue-eye trevally extra complexity and, when available, eel made a nod to the original bouillabaisse.
The quality of any perfect fish dish lies in the freshness of the produce, of course. Just one variety in less than peak condition will dull the flavour, while oily fish add heaviness.
Onions, garlic and tomatoes were chopped, and the essential saffron and fresh thyme prepared ready for the assembly of the individual portions in enamelled cast-iron gratin dishes.
Aficionados might point out that this is not the traditional manner of serving bouillabaisse. Normally the smaller fish are absorbed into the soup served in a tureen and larger fish and shellfish are presented on a platter. But Claude's adaptation tasted pretty authentic and it was the only way he could serve 40 appreciative guests.

Step 7: Ladle boiling bouillin over the seafood and cook

The final cooking calls for high heat so the fish cook quickly, thus retaining texture; don't expect to have the fish cooked "à point" as the French say, but some textural firmness provides contrast. Claude's method takes about five minutes to finish on a restaurant stove and up to 10 minutes in the domestic kitchen. The best way to cook this at home is in small batches for the best flavour and texture. Serve it with a pale Provençal rosé. Bonne bouillabaisse!


  • 1 white baguette (not sourdough), sliced thinly crossways
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 6 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 8 large Roma tomatoes, scored, blanched, peeled and seeded
  • ¾ cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley, a few stalks reserved for the bouillion, plus extra to serve
  • 1 small lobster (800gm), placed in the freezer for 45 minutes to render it insensible (see note)
  • 3 kg mixed fish fillets and fish cutlets (such as red mullet, red spot whiting, rock cod, leatherjacket, John Dory, snapper and blue-eye trevally), cut into 5cm-6cm pieces
  • 2 red spot whiting (about 500gm-600gm), ungutted, chopped
  • 1 small rock cod (500gm), gutted, chopped
  • 4 red mullet (400gm), ungutted, chopped
  • 1 flathead (300gm), gutted, chopped
  • 1 leatherjacket (200gm), coarsely chopped
  • 1 snapper head with backbone (370gm), carefully scrubbed and gills removed
  • 10 raw king prawns (60gm each), 4 chopped into thirds, remaining left whole
  • 5 raw blue swimmer crabs (310gm each), split and stomach and tail discarded
  • 1 onion, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ carrot, coarsely chopped
  • 1 head baby fennel, trimmed, coarsely chopped
  • 1 small leek (white part only), washed, thickly sliced
  • 3 ripe tomatoes, halved crossways
  • 1 small head garlic, halved crossways
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste, mixed with 1 tbsp warm water
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds, plus 6 pinches extra to serve
  • 1 small baby dried bay leaf, plus 6 extra to serve
  • Small bunch of thyme, coarsely chopped, plus 3 tsp leaves extra to serve
  • 1 tsp saffron threads, toasted, plus 6 pinches extra to serve (see note)
  • 50 gm day-old crustless bread, torn into pieces
  • 1-2 long red chilies, finely chopped, seeds removed (optional)
  • 3 garlic cloves, green shoots discarded
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • ¼ tsp saffron threads, toasted (see note)
  • ¼ smoked paprika (optional)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 200 ml extra-virgin olive oil


  • 1
    For the bouillon, combine fish, chopped prawns and 2 of the crabs with 1 tsp salt in a large stockpot, place under cold running water and stir well to ensure everything is thoroughly rinsed, which helps to produce a clearer bouillon (8-10 minutes).
  • 2
    Transfer to the most powerful burner on the stove or a wok burner, add remaining ingredients, including parsley stalks, 1 tbsp salt and some pepper, cover well with cold water and bring slowly to the boil. Reduce to low heat and simmer very gently, without skimming, until stock is well flavoured (about 1 hour), then rest for 1 hour.
  • 3
    Strain bouillon through a conical sieve, pressing and pounding with a pestle or ladle to extract all the juices, into a clean saucepan. (This step may be done ahead; stir bouillion in smaller quantities until cooled before refrigerating.)
  • 4
    Meanwhile, preheat oven to 160C and bake baguette croûtons slightly overlapping on a baking tray until pale golden (9-10 minutes).
  • 5
    For rouille, simmer 150ml bouillon in a small saucepan over high heat until reduced to 60ml (4-6 minutes). Remove from heat, add bread and work to a paste. Transfer to a mortar and pestle, add chillies, garlic, mustard, saffron and paprika, and pound to combine, then, while stirring, work in yolks and ¼ tsp salt until smooth. Add oil in a thin steady stream, working with the pestle (or a small whisk) until thick and emulsified. Add 1 tbsp more hot bouillon and season to taste, cover directly and set aside. Do not refrigerate. Rouille should be made the day it's to be served.
  • 6
    Brush 2 shallow braising pans or 26cm-27cm frying pans with olive oil. Scatter onion, garlic, tomato, parsley and extra spices and herbs over evenly and arrange lobster, fish, remaining prawns and crab in a single snug layer on top. This may be done ahead and refrigerated covered. Remove from fridge 20 minutes before cooking.
  • 7
    Bring bouillon to a rapid boil, and heat prepared pans over high heat, then immediately ladle boiling bouillon into pans, shaking pans to loosen base. Return to the boil (4-5 minutes), then reduce heat to medium, and simmer, shaking pan occasionally and turning fish, until fish is just cooked (about 10 minutes; start checking doneness after 5 minutes). Scatter bouillabaisse with parsley and serve with rouille and croûtons. Have plenty of finger bowls of hot water withlemon slices, and paper napkins on the table.


To prepare the lobster, place it tail flat on a board, hold the body firmly, then push a strong, sharp knife between the eyes. To separate the tail from the carapace, insert a thin-bladed knife hard against the upper part of the head, then cut through. Turn the carapace over and repeat to sever the tail. Holding the tail in one hand and body in the other, using a tea towel to protect your hand from the spikes, twist and pull gently to dislodge the tail. Make a small incision in the underside of the tail and pull out the digestive tract from the fleshy end. Cut between each joint of the tail shell, then, using kitchen scissors, cut each joint in opposite directions so you have jointed pieces. Reserve the head for stock. Frozen lobster tails work well here, too.
To toast saffron, warm saffron in a 100C oven for 10 minutes.