“The true one comes from Marseille,” writes Austin de Croze in Les Plats Region- aux de France. “For is it not in the waters of the beautiful bay of Marseille that all of the requisite varieties of brilliant-hued rock fish, which go to make up the excellence of a bouillabaisse, are to be found.” Everyone seems to agree that rascasse (red scorpion-fish), a coarse, ugly, vicious-looking little beast, is an essential ingredient.
Along with as many kinds of Mediterranean fish as the cook can get his paws upon. Plus olive oil and saffron and bread. The dish must be rapidly boiled (the name comes from a compound meaning to simmer), to emulsify the stock and oil. The fish is served first, usually, then the broth over bread. It is not “intended to be a soup,” stresses Elizabeth David in French Provincial Cooking. “There should merely be enough of the broth to produce a generous amount of moistening for the slices of bread.” That said, she wasn’t overly enamoured: “I would not myself think it a great deprivation if I were told that I could never again eat a bouillabaisse….”
Richard Olney, writing in The French Menu Cookbook, describes it as “more a philosophy than a culinary preparation.”
And there’s certainly enough hot air spouted about the damned dish to float a whole barrage of balloons. Purists will argue every aspect. They always do. Whether the bread should be toasted, or rubbed with garlic.
And about the addition, or not, of tomatoes, potatoes, white wine or mussels; heresy to some, gospel to others. As to the langouste, that ethereally sweet local crustacean thug, there are two schools of thought, says Waverley Root in The Food of France. “One is, a man who would put lobsters in bouillabaisse would poison wells. The other is, a man who would leave it out would starve his children.”
It is, admits Olney, “terrifyingly soporific.” Indeed, one of the many vivid tales as to its inception involves Venus, Vulcan and Mars. Venus created it to send Vulcan to sleep, so she could bugger off for a little ooh la la with Mars. Meades, though, has little time for the stuff. “Bouillabaisse is an old Provencal or maybe Occitan word which translates as, ‘we saw you coming, mush.’ It is certainly a massive disappointment, preposterously expensive and consumed almost exclusively by tourists. There is a thing called ‘the bouillabaisse charter’ — think gothic script on leatherette. This is essentially a price-fixing agreement among a number of allegedly gastronomic restaurants.”
Still, as tourists, this supposedly blessed broth should at least cross our lips. But rather than keeping ourselves to street level, we aim for the stars, three Michelin to be precise, at Le Petit Nice. It’s a little out of town, past the Plages des Catalans, the beach where Doyle, porkpie hat on head, leered over the local ladies. It’s dark now, the sea below us is as black as olives. In the glare of the floodlights, fishermen cast from the honeyed rocks. I have little time for the usual flourishes and excesses of the three-star firmament, but the cooking here is exceptional.
“Bouille-Abaisse” is the famous set menu, a “deconstructed” (yuk!) version of the dish. The descriptions may be trite, (‘Shallow Waters”, “Deep Seas”, ‘The Abyss”), but the skill and flavours are anything but. The sweetest slivers of shellfish in a concentrated, but blissfully clean, saline juice that tastes of mermaids’ sighs. And a tomato consommé of startlingly sublime intensity. Gerald Passedat, the chef proprietor, is a local and sure knows how to coax out flavour. Even Leigh is impressed.
We end with a simple bowl of dirty, rust-coloured broth. It has a sonorous, full fathom five profundity, with the merest smirk of depravity, plus a whisper of chilli, nudge of bitter orange peel and the slow moan of saffron. If the preceding courses were about dainty mermaids, then this is Poseidon’s punch. “Well, there we go,” says Leigh. “You won’t find better than that.” He’s right. Call it what you will, it’s a pretty decent fish soup..