Just how do you make a real bouillabaise and how did this famous fish dish get its name? Keith Van Sickle, author of Life in Provence, finds out
The legend of Bouillabaisse
My wife and I live part of the year in St.-Rémy-de-Provence. We love bouillabaisse, that magical dish that seems to capture the spirit of Provence. So when our friend Pascal, a retired chef, invited us over for homemade bouillabaisse, we were quick to accept.
Legend has it that bouillabaisse was invented long ago by the fishermen of Marseille. Not wanting to eat the high-class fish that fetched the best prices, they instead created a dish from the bony, unappealing rockfish that no one wanted.
How Bouillabaisse is made
Bouillabaisse is made in two stages. First comes the fish soup called, logically enough, soupe de poisson. To make it, rockfish are cooked with onion, fennel, garlic, tomato and white wine “very important” says Pascal.
This mixture is seasoned to the chef’s taste, with top-grade saffron being the essential ingredient. Then it is ground up, bones and all, into the richly flavored soupe.
Meanwhile, other fish are marinated and then cooked whole in the hot soupe. The cooked fish are fileted and served with boiled potatoes and other vegetables.
A bouillabaisse meal starts with a first course of soupe de poisson, along with little round toasts and rouille, a kind of spicy saffron mayonnaise with lots of garlic. The second course is the fish and vegetables.
When we got to Pascal’s house he had already made the soupe and had a platter of fish marinating in olive oil and saffron, ready to be cooked.
Use cheap fish for bouillabaisse
Pascal explained how he had made his soupe. “I buy the cheapest fish at the market,” he said. “They are bony and ugly but delicious if you know how to cook them.” I looked at the rascasse and could see what he meant about ugly.
“I always use rascasse, grondin (sea robin), congre (conger) and saint-pierre (John Dory or Peter’s Fish),” he added. “Look at the spot on the side of the saint-pierre, we believe it is the thumb print of St. Peter himself, the great fisherman.”
Pascal went on to explain that soupe de poisson should be well seasoned. He uses at least a dozen herbs and spices, with his favorite being a mix of five different freshly ground peppers.
He referred to his well-thumbed copy of La Cuisinière Provençale, the bible of Provençal cooking. “I always use this,” he said, “to respect our traditions.”
“When all the ingredients for the soupe are cooked”, he continued, “you must grind them by hand. Never use a blender.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because it will EXPLODE. I know from experience.” Pascal pointed to the faint saffron stains still visible on his white kitchen walls. He explained that putting hot liquid in a blender, then whirling it around at high speed, increases the pressure and can lead to disaster.
How Bouillabaisse got its name
Now it was time to cook the fish. Pascal turned up the gas burner until the soupe came to a boil, then put in the fish and turned down the flame. “This is the secret to cooking the fish properly,” he said. “If you don’t lower the temperature you will overcook the fish.”
“It’s also where the name of the dish comes from,” he continued. “You bring it to a boil (bouiller in French), then lower (baisser) the temperature.” So bouiller + baisser = bouillabaisse.
A few minutes later the fish was ready and we sat down to our first course. We spread rouille on the toasts and floated them in our big bowls of soupe, making little islands of garlicky deliciousness.
“Not like the frozen stuff they serve in restaurants, eh?” asked Pascal with a sly grin. No, not at all – it was so good I had seconds.
Then we had the fish and potatoes with a bit more soupe sprinkled on top. It was the food of the gods.
As we said our goodbyes that night, Pascal told us, “Bouillabaisse teaches us Mediterranean history – through the dish we learn of the diversity of fish and of spices and of our traditions. Every time I prepare it, it is a great moment for me to share it with family and close friends.”
A great moment, indeed.
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence; Read more at Life in Provence.