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A taste of Collioure in the south of France

View of the Collioure coastline, boats floating in the port at sunset

On summer evenings, the swallows dip and swoop in nervous arcs as if anxious to protect, or preserve, the close of day in its melancholy stillness. A light hovers over Collioure, on the Vemillion Coast in the Pyrenees-Orientales. Caught in a pale brushstroke of watercolor blue, a wash which holds the houses together as they wait for an even bluer night. It is no mystery why the painters gathered here and created works of wonder. Matisse, Derain, de Vlaminck, Roualt, with Braque and Dufy touching in every now and again, to have capture the sea’s beauty and sip pastis in the ateliers of fellow painters.

I knew their colors from art books but did not really know the Fauves as I do now. Some nights the sea is red, as red as the Fauves, modern artists, had painted it, and just touched on the edges by a deep Prussian blue, the pink of the sky on its horizon, perched there as if it were a curtain that would lift and expose eternity.

The wind, the Tramontane, can blow incessantly – this ‘violent’ weather makes the locals complain. But I love it, the changes in the air, in the sky, in the sea. Too much sameness in California has whetted my appetite for this Catalan clime, unpredictable except by the fishermen who seem to know exactly how many drops will fall on a certain day and where they will land, and how long they will stay. They look out to sea with their honed vision and tell you that at 3pm you’ll need an umbrella, or “il fait beau pour le week-end”, which makes us all happy.

The main meal in our little town is at midday. Often it’s fish from the neighboring port, where it arrives daily and is displayed on long counters of cracked ice in our local poissonerie. Rouget and sardines, the famous anchovies that feel silky under your fingers, skinned eel and polka-dotted sole, turbot, sea bass (loup de mer), salmon and tuna and the ubiquitous and historically famous cod, morue. I buy it salted and desalinate it for 48 hours until it has a bit of salt but not too much. Then I make a paste of the steamed fish, cooked potato, parsley, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.

There is a shop in Collioure, filled with fish tanks, its counters heaped with Marenne and Belon oysters, sea snails that one plucks from the shell with a little nail and dips into aioli, tiny red shrimp from Spain, langoustines, lobster, crab, and of course cockles and mussels. A cook’s heaven, especially as one can find here the tiny green crabs that create a perfect soupe de poisson avec rouille. It’s a delicious fish soup served over toast spread with a mayonnaise of egg yolks, olive oil, roasted red peppers and garlic.

Fish soup with rouille (mayonnaise)

To take a little savory trip to the south of France here’s the recipe:

Buy a crab at your local fish market and enjoy most of it for dinner. Also buy a couple of salmon collars or pieces and a couple of pounds of small rock fish used in soups.  Most fish markets have soup fish.

In a large pot, put the salmon, all the crab leavings, crushed with a mallet if possible and any broth you have left over from the crab.  Add 2 onions, 2 carrots, 2 stalks celery, and a small head of fennel, all chopped medium. Add ½ bottle of dry white wine, then water to cover, 2 chicken bouillon cubes (don’t balk at this, it works wonders!), a thin slice of orange peel, a tiny dried, hot red pepper and a generous pinch of saffron.

Simmer this concoction for 30 minutes or so on low heat, then strain the broth into a new pot. The broth at this point should be savory and rich and if it is not, reduce the broth on a high heat for about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer and put in the chowder fish and cook for 10-15 minutes. Add a cup of rich tomato sauce and cook another 15 minutes.

Make the rouille: Put one egg yolk into the bowl of a mixer with a little salt. Add a cup of olive oil and mix until it starts to thicken then add a pinch of cayenne and a few slices of sweet red pepper, roasted and peeled, 2 cloves of garlic, a pinch of saffron and a few drops of lemon juice. Add a little more olive oil to thicken the mayonnaise again and taste for seasoning. (You may also add the peppers and garlic to commercial mayonnaise, but it’s not quite the same.)

Spread the rouille generously on toast which you then place in the bottom of a soup bowl. Ladle the hot soup over the top.

This soup is better the next day, but pretty good straight away.

Suzanne Dunnaway is the author of No Need To Knead, Handmade ItalianBreads in 90 Minutes (Hyperion); Rome, At Home, The Spirit of la cucina romana in Your Own Kitchen (Broadway Books); No Need to Knead (Metric/American version-Grub Street Publishers, London) 

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