True Bouillabaisse

Francois de Melogue
Feb 22 · 9 min read

Today, the musts and must nots of preparing bouillabaisse are so numerous and so contradictory that one should be prepared to break rules at will.

— Richard Olney

The Musts and Must-Nots

Bouillabaisse is perhaps the most bastardized dish that was ever created and as a classicist, that truly bothers me. In its strictest form, bouillabaisse is an assertive flavored, richly textured saffron seafood stew made from a specific list of Mediterranean fish that is always served in two courses. The worst case gives us a barely flavored, thin broth speckled with too many vegetables that some old seafood has been laid to rest in.

Somewhere in between lies bouillabaisse’s true soul, and sadly that has been forgotten, or worse yet, lost.

The Religion of Bouillabaisse

The ritual of eating a traditional bouillabaisse today is always the same. First we place two to three slices of oven-toasted French bread which have been rubbed with garlic in the bottom of our soup plates; then we top each slice with freshly grated Gruyere or Cantal cheese and top it with a dab of rouille. Then and only then do we ladle in the steaming hot aromatic fish bouillon. One or two more plates of this and — with the necessary refurbishments of garlic bread, cheese and rouille — we can turn our attention to the fish…

— Robert Carrier

I once wrote, “Eating bouillabaisse is a carefully choreographed religious ceremony, requiring 24 hours notice and preparation, whose consumption is performed in two sacred rites ending with genuflexion to the sacred cauldron.” I stand by those words with more conviction today than when I originally wrote them a few years back.

Bouillabaisse is correctly served in two courses, starting with the pungent saffron and tomato hued broth ladled into warmed bowls and served with garlic croutons, shredded cheese, spicy rouille, and garlicky aioli. After seconds are offered, the whole fish which were poached in the broth are presented to the table, then filleted and served glistening in a thin pool of extra broth.

For adherents of the bouillabaisse religion, there are certainties and expectations to be met. Trying to describe what authentic bouillabaisse should taste like is a bit like arguing with a Mexican over what constitutes a real mole or maybe with an American about what true bbq taste like. Ask ten people and you will get twelve answers.

I agree when Richard Olney concluded, “Today, the musts and must nots of preparing bouillabaisse are so numerous and so contradictory that one should be prepared to break rules at will.” Ironically though, shortly after he wrote those words in ‘Provence, the Beautiful Cookbook’, he gives us his certainties followed by a pretty rigid home variation adapted from Lulu Peyraud.

The name itself implies a contradiction, bouille means to boil hard and baisse means slow and easy. Robert Carrier offers an explanation in ‘Feasts of Provence’, “in old Provencal, boui abaisso literally means boil over high heat for a matter of minutes and then lower the heat.” Boiling amalgamates the oil and broth almost like whisking brings together oil and vinegar to produce an emulsified vinaigrette. By boiling hard, the resulting liquid is united into a viscous broth further thickened by flecks of fish proteins and gelatins from the milled rockfish.

Origins

The subject of bouillabaisse is a complicated one. . . . For the ingredients, only one fish is agreed upon by everyone — rascasse. No two lists are the same, and rascasse is the only name common to all.

— Waverley Root

According to food historian Alan Davidson, famed author of the ‘Oxford Companion to Food’, the first mention of a bouillabaisse-like soup of French origin appears in print in ‘La Cuisine de Santé’ authored by Jourdain Le Cointe in 1790. He describes a scene in which fishermen and their wives are on a riverbed boiling a cauldron full of small, unsellable rockfish. Although the recipe given is called ‘Matellote du Poisson’, its composition strongly suggests a modern-day bouillabaisse.

The story could only have been enhanced if Le Cointe had mentioned that several pastises were knocked back along that riverbed and perhaps a lively game of petanque was played while the fishermen argued which fish are the correct fish for bouillabaisse. It wasn’t until 1830, when ‘Le Cuisinier Durand’ is written, that we get a dish actually called bouillabaisse.

To be 100% truthful, I care less about history as much as I do the preparation and preserving the soul of the dish.

“What is rascasse?” Root asks, and answers himself, “It is a coarse fish, armed with spines, which lives in holes in the rocks, and would be allowed to stay there if it were not for bouillabaisse. Alone, it is not particularly good eating, but it is the soul of bouillabaisse. Cooked with other fish, rascasse is one of those catalytic foods, like the truffle, whose own contribution to taste seems meager but which has the gift of intensifying other flavors.”

Quoted from A.J. Liebling’s 1962 article in the New Yorker entitled ‘The Soul of Bouillabaisse Town’

Rascasse

I find it deeply disturbing that of the one million mutated versions found worldwide, we are left with something that no longer captures the soul of Provencal bouillabaisse. The very things that separate it from other fish soups and stews are lost in translation. I’ve read countless famous people’s blogs and notable magazines that describe bouillabaisse as having “a delicately flavored broth.” None mention the pungency, the aroma or viscosity. Most recipes seem to be thinly veiled plagiarized copies of one another, the plague of modern food writing.

Waverley Root, who famously wrote in his book ‘The Food of France’, “The subject of bouillabaisse is a complicated one. . . . For the ingredients, only one fish is agreed upon by everyone — rascasse. No two lists are the same, and rascasse is the only name common to all.” That may be true if you live in the Mediterranean region or have an amazing fishmonger who gets regular shipments or European fish flown in. Rascasse gives the broth a certain gelatinous viscosity and fish flavor that only a noble rockfish seems to provide.

For years I fought this truth and tried to make bouillabaisse in the style of American chefs. It wasn’t until 2003 when I was the chef of Pili Pili in Chicago that I had my bouillabaisse awakening.

It was two-fold, first I wanted to create an absolutely perfect and true rendition. I bought all the correct Mediterranean fish flown in fresh for the occasion and then I had to charge for the experience. While my price was on par with versions found at notable restaurants like l’Epuisette in Marseille it was well beyond the comprehension of my clientele. I only sold one or two orders.

Bouillabaisse at FonFon in Marseille.

The Soul of Bouillabaisse

Quite a passable bouillabaisse can be made with fresh water fish… This will not of course be comparable with the authentic bouillabaisse of the Mediterranean, but at least it will conjure up memories…”

Reboul from the bible of Provencal cooking ‘La Cuisinière Provençale’

Sure, I could cite the slightly anal retentive recipe from the 1980 charter that exactly defines ‘real’ bouillabaisse as having a minimum of at least four of the following fish: rascasse, red mullet, conger eel, St. Pierre, skate and gurnard with the added option of adding cigale de mer, a crustacean resembling a lobster, and/or spiny lobster. The charter dictates that all those fish must lovingly swim in a rich broth made from classic Provencal staples like garlic, onions, tomatoes, olive oil, fennel and saffron where even the potatoes are argued about. Instead, I will offer my two cents and join the chorus of great voices who have already spoken on the subject.

Red-banded rockfish from the Pacific Northwest.

To be authentic and true to the soul of bouillabaisse it is imperative to use absolutely fresh seafood — and use several different kinds. One of them HAS to be a gelatinous rockfish, in the Pacific Northwest we are doubly blessed, rockfish are plentiful and cheap.

Concentrate more on the broth creation than worrying about the selection of fish. The broth should be made with lots of garlic, onions, fennel (wild preferably), dried orange peel, tomatoes and a large ask your accountant first quantity of saffron cooked in olive oil, good olive oil. Provencal food is assertive and bold… be bold and assertive yourself. Add a few pounds of small rockfish to the broth creation and boil hard.

Pull out your seldom used food mill that you have not touched since your child’s second eating attempt and thought for a fleeting second that you would cook all your own baby foods. Mill everything, including the rockfish and all its bones.

This is the secret, this is where the soul is captured.

Bouillabaisse at l’Epuisette in Marseille.

Ever since 1918, when I ate my first bouillabaisse — an event that in my mind overshadowed the end of the First World War

— A. J. Liebling

Bouillabaisse is not a dish you make solely for your wife on Wednesday night, it is a celebration of life, an excuse to give thanks to the gods for a wonderful life. Invite several friends over; have a party, this is what life is truly about.

Recipe for a Pacific Northwest Bouillabaisse

Serves: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

Swimming with the Fish

  • 3 pounds Alaskan day boat halibut
  • 3 pounds red banded rockfish
  • 3 pounds lingcod
  • 4 pounds Dungeness crab, outer shell remove and cut into quarters
  • 1 pound Washington state manila clams
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup Pastis
  • 1/2 cup fennel fronds, chopped

The Soul of Bouillabaisse

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 head garlic, rough chopped
  • 3 sweet onions, sliced
  • 1 fennel bulb, sliced
  • 4 tomatoes, chopped OR a 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup Pastis
  • 1 big pinch saffron
  • 1 strip dried orange peel
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes or 1small hot pepper (I use espelettes I dry myself)
  • 4-pound rockfish, cut into five or six pieces
  • water or fish stock

Serving Bouillabaisse

  • 1 loaf French bread sliced and toasted
  • 4 garlic cloves to rub toasted bread with
  • 2 cups rouille
  • 2 cups grated Gruyere or Cantal cheese
  • 2 cups garlicky aioli

Instructions

Swimming with the Fish

  1. Combine all your fish with the olive oil, pastis and fennel fronds and let marinate while you make everything else. A few hours is fine, overnight is even better.

The Soul of Bouillabaisse

  1. Heat olive oil in a large, non-reactive pot.
  2. Add garlic. Do not worry about peeling it, the food mill will stop the skins from getting in the broth.
  3. Add onions and fennel, and saute for a few moments, about five minutes.
  4. Add tomatoes, bay leaves, pastis, saffron, dried orange peel, red pepper flakes, and rockfish.
  5. Cover with water or fish stock and boil hard, then simmer for thirty minutes.
  6. Ladle everything into a food mill and crank away till you have pressed the solids dry.

Serving Bouillabaisse

  1. To finish the recipe, bring the broth to a rapid boil and add all the fish.
  2. Bring back to a boil then simmer for ten minutes.
  3. Put toasted French bread slices (rubbed with garlic cloves) into a bowl smothered in rouille and sprinkled with grated cheese.
  4. Ladle broth over and enjoy life. Contemplate the slowness of nature around you. Drink lots of wine and laugh with friends…. you are truly blessed. Bouillabaisse is my religion.
  5. Arrange cooked fish on a platter and let everyone help themselves to vast quantities of seafood. Ladle broth over if you are inclined to do so. Eat with lots of rouille and aioli.

Notes

Dried orange peel is easily made by peeling an orange and letting the peel completely dry in a dark and well-ventilated spot. Drying concentrates the flavor.

Richard Olney suggested serving a red Bandol that is very young. I had always drunk with rose (to the dismay of my cousin Andre who considers rose not real wine) or with a white Provencal wine. I tried a red Bandol last week and was blown away.

Once again, Richard is right.