Perhaps you’ve heard or said yourself that dishes eaten in France don’t taste as good once they are transported to the United States. Bouillabaisse, the heady fennel-and-saffron-laced fish stew of Marseilles, is a classic example.
The notion that bouillabaisse (BOOL-yuh- BAYZ or BOOL-yuh-BEHZ), created by fishermen to salvage unsold fish from the day’s catch, can only be made in the South of France has been perpetuated by the French, of course, but also American food authorities like James Beard. “It really cannot be prepared anywhere but around or near the Mediterranean, because to give a bouillabaisse the quality it needs, one must have certain traditional fish such as conger eel, rascasse, and St. Pierre, plus a variety of other ingredients…,” he writes in Beard on Food (Alfred A. Knopf, 1974).
Bunk! The bouillabaisse I made in the Provencal hamlet of Ansouis many years ago was better than the one I had in a restaurant in Marseilles on the same trip. And two versions I created here were as good or better than those by Gallic experts Julia Child and Richard Olney. In his book, The Food of France (Alfred A. Knopf, 1958) Waverley Root concurs with my view, saying that the best bouillabaisse he ever had was in the now defunct Restaurant du Midi in New York.
But that hasn’t stopped the French from trying to keep the bouillabaisse mystique alive. Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise was created in 1979 “to preserve the tradition of a gastronomic dish of Marseilles in Provence.” Only one restaurant in the United States, L’Olivier in San Francisco, has been inducted into this exclusive club. Members of Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise must agree on the “essential elements” of the dish, which include: at least four different kinds of fish, saffron, olive oil, garlic, fennel, onions, parsley, tomatoes, and potatoes.
However, in her book French Provincial Cooking (Harper & Row, 1962), Elizabeth David writes that the addition of potatoes comes from Toulon, not Marseilles and is “a practice which appalls a Marsaillais.” So much for authenticity.
Christian and Guy Francoz, owners of L’Olivier, follow the Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise guidelines for their bouillabaisse. But they ran into trouble when they tried to serve the dish in authentic Marseillaise style, meaning whole fish rather than chunks, cooked in broth, with the fish served as a separate course, filleted tableside. “Customers didn’t like it that way, especially the heads,” Guy says.
Seventeen years after that first bouillabaisse experience in Ansouis, my wife and I and three other couples rented another house in Provence, this time near the town of Menerbes. Bouillabaisse was again on the list of local dishes I wanted to cook. However, unlike the previous bouillabaisse, I decided to buy rascasse for this version.
While shopping at the outdoor market in St. Remy (one of the best in Provence) I came upon a small seafood store and instantly spotted the hideous looking rascasse. The price was even uglier. Having visited France many times, I was prepared to pay more than Americans are accustomed to for seafood (not to mention meat and poultry). But the weak American dollar made things even worse. That three-pound rascasse cost $90! And it left little else for the fish stew other than tomatoes, onions, and potatoes.
You don’t really need rascasse and you don’t have to spend all day making bouillabaisse either. In fact, when I served my 15-minute bouillabaisse (see recipe below) in blind tasting with a traditional version by Olney, my guests liked mine just as much.
For a bouillabaisse that serves 6 to 8 people, you’ll need about 3 pounds of cleaned fish trimmings (heads, bones, and tails). Put the fish and 3/4 cup each of chopped carrots, onion, and celery, 8 parsley stems, 1/4 teaspoon saffron, 1 cup dry white wine, 1/2 lemon (juice and all) 2 bay leaves, a dried chile pepper, and 2 3/4 quarts cold water in a 6-to-8-quart pot. Simmer for 60 minutes, while periodically skimming the scum that forms on top. Strain the stock through a double thickness of cheesecloth, pressing out as much of the liquid from the solids as possible. This will yield about 2 quarts, which can be refrigerated up to 3 days. Bottled clam juice, used my 15-minute version, is a good substitute for homemade fish broth.
Recipes from Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise and Child make a fish broth and tomato sauce together, then strain it into a fish soup called soupe de poissons. Others, like Olney, don’t make a broth or fish soup but simply add the fish to a tomato sauce and boiling water.
For my tomato sauce sauté 2 chopped medium onions, the chopped white part of one small fennel bulb, and 6 chopped cloves garlic in 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a pot large enough to hold the sauce, fish broth, and seafood. Add 3 cups chopped canned tomatoes, 1/4 cup chopped parsley and cook, uncovered, 15 to 20 minutes or until half of the moisture evaporates. Season with salt and pepper.
While purists may allow for California-grown fennel or Idaho potatoes, they insist on specific Mediterranean fish, most of which aren’t available here. Rascasse (scorpion fish), for example, is considered de rigueur for bouillabaisse because its boniness helps lend a gelatinous quality to the broth. But you can achieve the same result with a good fish broth and equally gelatinous fish such as halibut.
Some fish found in the classic bouillabaisse are available in the United States, primarily monkfish and red snapper. At the Sansom Street Oyster House in Philadelphia, chef and owner Cary Neff includes Mediterranean fish like daurade (sea bream) and branzino (sea bass) among the 7 or 8 fish in his bouillabaisse, but stops short of using shellfish. “People ask for mussels and other shellfish because they don’t understand what bouillabaisse is. I’ve even seen calamari,” Neff says.
However, Francoz notes that chefs in France often use mussels. And in Provence, The Beautiful Cookbook (Collins Publishers, 1993), Olney points out that the people of Martigues in Southern France use cuttlefish, whose ink sacks burst, creating bouillabaisse noir. Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise allows for langouste (spiny lobster, favored by Parisians), so you shouldn’t feel badly about using Maine lobster.
Amaryll Schwertner, chef of Stars in San Francisco says that the fish you use should be as varied as possible. “It’s important to offer a contrast of textures,” she says. “For example a sturdy fish like monkfish along with softer fish like cod or sole.” I’d also add eel, rockfish, swordfish, haddock, hake, grouper, porgy, sea bass, and Chilean sea bass. Other white fish are possible but stay away from strong, oily fish like tuna or salmon.
Add a few tablespoons of Pernod (or pastis), a teaspoon of grated orange zest, and 1/4 teaspoon of crushed saffron to the fish broth and tomato sauce and bring to a rapid boil. Then add the fish, beginning with the sturdiest fish, and lobster and crabs, if desired. Return to boil, lower to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Then add any delicate fish and mussels and shrimp, if desired. Return to boil, lower to a simmer, and cook 5 minutes more or until the fish springs back when touched and the mussels open.
No bouillabaisse would be complete without a spicy rouille (roo-EEE or roo-YUH). To make this sauce, puree 6 garlic cloves in a food processor. Then add 2 slices from a baguette, 1/4 teaspoon crushed saffron threads mixed with 1/4 cup of fish broth, 2 egg yolks, and red bell pepper, red jalapeno, and mild red pepper, each roasted and peeled. Puree the mixture, then slowly add 1 cup olive oil while the food processor runs until mixture thickens like mayonnaise. Season with salt and hot pepper to taste.
Have plenty of toasted baguette slices ready for service to soak up that great broth. For an individual serving, put toasted baguette slices in a large soup plate. Add the seafood and broth and let guests swirl in the rouille.
Hands down, the best wines with bouillabaisse are rosés from Provence or the Southern Rhone, though there are fine rosés from Spain and Italy that will suffice. I also liked the way the acidity of Sancerre cut through the spiciness of the dish. Other whites, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, white Cotes du Rhone, white Bordeaux, and halb-trocken Riesling were fine, just not as good as the Sancerre.
15-Minute BouillabaisseTwo 8-ounce bottles clam juice
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
- 1 medium onion, about 8 ounces
- 4 cloves garlic
- 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- One 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons ground fennel
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Three 4-ounce pieces monkfish or swordfish
- Three 4-ounce pieces halibut, snapper, or sea bass
- 8 ounces cleaned squid bodies
- 1 small French baguette
- 1/2 cup roasted red bell peppers from a jar
- 1 egg yolk (or 1/4 cup egg substitute)
1)Preheat the broiler and adjust the broiling rack between 3 and 6 inches from the heat source. Open the bottles of clam juice and pour into a large measuring cup or small bowl. Crush 1/4 teaspoon of the saffron between your fingers into the clam juice. Stir and set aside.
2)Put a large sauté pan or Dutch oven over high heat. Peel and quarter the onion. Peel the garlic. Then add the onion and 3 cloves of the garlic into a food processor. Pulse just until chopped. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to the pan along with the onion and garlic. Cook for 2 minutes
3)Add the tomatoes, fennel, clam juice with saffron, and salt and pepper to taste to the pan. Stir well, cover, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, cut each piece of fish in half (making 2-ounce pieces). Reduce the heat to medium, add the fish, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the squid into rings. Add the squid for the final 1 minute.
4)While the seafood cooks, cut the baguette into nine 1/2-inch slices on the diagonal. Put 8 of the slices on a baking sheet and toast both sides in the broiler, about 1 minute on each side.
5)To make the rouille, drop the remaining garlic clove down the chute of the food processor (no need to wash it) with the motor running. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, add the roasted peppers, egg yolk, reserved bread slice, and the remaining saffron, crushed between your fingers. Purée, then, with the motor running, gradually add the remaining 7 tablespoons of olive oil through the chute until the mixture has the consistency of mayonnaise. Season to taste with salt.
6)Divide the seafood and broth among 4 soup plates. Spread the rouille on the toasted baguette slices and put 2 slices on top of each plate. Serve any remaining rouille in a small bowl at the table. Serves 4.