A.J. Liebling considered his first encounter with bouillabaisse to be “an event that in my mind overshadowed the end of the first world war”. Even by the hyperbolic standards of food writing, this is an outrageous sentiment; and yet I have some sympathy with it, for bouillabaisse is arguably France’s greatest composite dish, surpassing pot-au-feu, cassoulet and choucroute.
Now found on menus the world over, it originated in Marseille, when fishermen boiled up their by-catch, then added herbs, spices and olive oil. Inevitably, its essential ingredients have long been disputed. “Larousse Gastronomique” believes it is more of a method of cooking than an actual recipe: “there are as many ‘authentic’ bouillabaisses as there are ways of combining fish.” Despite this, the authenticity argument became so heated in Marseille that, in 1980, leading restaurants issued a Bouillabaisse Charter, declaring that the genuine article had to include at least four of the following: scorpion fish, white scorpion fish, red mullet, skate, John Dory and conger eel. Mussels were ruled out but cigale de mer (slipper lobster) and spiny lobster were grudgingly considered optional.
Classic versions are served in fish restaurants surrounding the old port of Marseille, with the finest being Miramar, which transforms a ton of fresh fish into bouillabaisse every week. At the other end of the spectrum is the extraordinary creation of Gérald Passedat, the chef at Le Petit Nice, the only three-star Michelin restaurant in Marseille. In a mansion on a rocky promontory, Passédat deconstructs bouillabaisse and presents it in three dishes with ingredients from different depths of the Mediterranean, using up to 75 different species depending on the season.
For home cooks, a better reference point is Richard Olney’s recipe in “Lulu’s Provençal Table”. Marinate a pile of assorted fish in powdered fennel seed, saffron, garlic and olive oil and, while they are resting, make the soup by boiling (bouillir) fish carcasses and live crabs with onions, garlic, tomatoes and fennel. Remove the crabs, pound their shells and return the dust to the pot to give body to the soup. Simmer to reduce (abaisser), then sieve, before adding saffron, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, carrots, garlic and fennel, a handful of mussels and, finally, the fish. Serve – to as many friends as can fit around the table – with toast smeared with rouille. ~ BRUCE PALLING