A Royal Soup with Humble Beginnings

Marseille – Bouillabaisse is one of those magical words, conjuring up vivid images of azure enchantment and a blindingly beautiful Mediterranean sky. It’s a word that whispers of a special kind of French connection – a delicious one and, it now seems, one that belongs to a storied past and is lost to us unlucky ones of the present and future.

That’s because – as we have all been told – a “real” bouillabaisse is at best rare and probably now on the list of things that money can’t buy. The Mediterranean has been fished so dry that it’s impossible to count on getting the one or two varieties that are absolutely essential for that “real” mythical dish.

But there’s a disconnect between that mournful chant and the rustic beginnings of what was maybe never just a simple meal, but a basic one. For bouillabaisse was not a Carème creation, but a way of using up the tiny leavings of the day’s catch. There was plenty of flavor in those spiny rock fish but no commercial appeal – the scrawny leftovers couldn’t be sold and so there was nothing to do but make them palatable for the family.

But the working class origins of bouillabaisse actually enhance its pedigree rather than diminish it because many flavorful rituals have had ordinary, even earthy beginnings..

Those little rockfish were only scaled and gutted and then boiled, really boiled, with tons of garlic and fennel and tomatoes. As the pot roiled along, the fish were pummeled and their bones crushed and pounded to extract maximum flavor as well as to let the broth thicken and turn into a luscious stew.

Then passed through a sieve, the broth was returned to the flame and reduced further. In time more fish was added to be poached quickly. Those fish would be filleted at table and served after copious amounts of the broth had been consumed with croutons, the garlicky rouille and potatoes nearly crimson with saffron.

The key to the ingredients is a variety of fish – the purists say there must be five, or four, or not more than some other very precise number. They may include baudroie or angler fish, rascasse (scorpion fish), daurade (porgy), chapon (scorpion fish), Saint Pierre or John Dory, gallinette (gurnard), and vive, the eel-like weever. But never, ever salmon, and shellfish is debatable. Why put mussels in bouillabaisse when a great moules-marinière is even easier and more appealing?

But then purists aren’t always doing the cooking, especially not in Marseille, a city where the people are better known more for their independence and resourcefulness than for following anyone’s rules.

Those are the choices for the fish – or the obligations. Then there’s the flavoring – garlic is essential both in the stew and for the rouille, or the thick saffron-rich sauce that’s served with croutons. There are fresh tomatoes. A hearty amount of fresh fennel is essential also and it’s easy to come by in Provence since it grows wild there and perfumes even the road banks. There can also be a little of the anise-flavored Pernod to boost the intensity of the fennel as well as add a dollop of sophistication.

In the making of bouillabaisse, “authentic” is more important than “pure,” and over the years in Provence we have pursued with moderate passion a quest for a good one. On a recent September day, with enough Indian summer sunshine to make even the drabbest spirit sparkle, we once again took our quest to Le Petit Nice, a luxurious restaurant nestled into Marseille’s scraggly shoreline and looking out at the sea and, among other sites, the Chateau d’If.

Gérard Passédat, chef and owner of that redoubtable landmark, prepared a bouillabaisse like no other. Even the spelling of his “bouille abaisse” is singular, though it emphasizes the origins of the dish by describing what happens in the pot – kept over a fast flame, the soup boils down to a delicious essence. Though Passédat’s version owes much of its inspiration to that poor fisherman’s stew, it has been dressed up to reflect his restaurant’s two-star elegance.

Our meal began with a simple salad of squid sautéed oh so lightly in olive oil and flavored with parsley. I might say that our meal began several hours earlier, at the Quai des Belges on Marseille’s famed old port, since we were with Passédat when he bought the squid. After that we moved through a trencherman’s menu that included a “Royale,” at once airy and unctuous, made from that Spanish delicacy, Pata Negra ham. There was also something I have never encountered before, a “molecular” version of tomato juice. Literally, it was a scoop of tomato juice held in a ball by molecular tension on the surface. That’s not something I’ll be trying in my own kitchen, delectable and tantalizing though it was when it burst like a ripe grape on an eager palate.

And then, the serious stuff, Passédat’s bouillabaisse. The fish selection – in tiny, triple-bite-size filets arranged on a long platter – consisted of merlan (whiting), vive (weever), gallinette (gurnard), baudroie (angler fish), chapon (scorpion fish), daurade (porgy) and Saint Pierre (John Dory). A small amount of the rich broth was poured over, and the waiter thoughtfully left the pitcher of soup on the table within easy reach. There were clams and mussels in sculpted side dishes. There were potatoes and saffron. There was a spicy, rarefied rouille rich in tomatoes, garlic and saffron. There were Melba-toast thin, parmesan-enhanced bread crisps. And just to drive home the point that no fishwife was in the kitchen, there was a chunk of Brittany lobster.

At 125 euros for the menu, not counting any wine, this was not a poor man’s repast. But oh was it good.

There was wine, of course. A crisp, perfectly chilled 2002 Cassis blanc from Clos d’Albizzi and a mellow and fruity red 2000 Baux de Provence from Domaine Hauvette.

There are of course many other places in Marseille that are famous for bouillabaisse, and one of the most charming is Chez Fonfon, which has a storybook setting overlooking one of the tiny rocky inlets off the Corniche John F. Kennedy. Traditionally bouillabaisse is prepared in two services. A bowl of soup first, with the croutons and rouille. And then the fish, removed from the still simmering pot, presented at table and then filleted as the diner watches.

Chez Fonfon, whose traditions are now being carried forward for the third generation of the Pinna family, offers plenty of charm in a beautiful setting. The night we were there was magical and the fish was fresh – and the soup wound up on my companion’s pants. He didn’t spill it, the waiter did. It was accidental of course – as he filleted the fish his platter tipped and a bowlful landed in my husband’s lap. Aside from taking it all back – which was a different kind of magical thought – the restaurant could not have done more.

My husband – thinking only of his well worn chinos – kept saying, “It’s not serious” to reassure the deeply embarrassed waiter. But from an adjoining table another diner kept responding, “yes it is, yes it is.”

Towels were brought, K2R was abundantly squirted, even a clean pair of pants was offered though declined. The owner was solicitous and the deeply embarrassed waiter was endlessly apologetic. It was a truly an unforgettable evening. And the bouillabaisse was as authentic as the experience.

Passédat Le Petit Nice
Anse de Maldormé -130 Corniche J.F.Kennedy
13007 Marseille
Tel: +33 (0)4 91 592 592
Fax: +33 (0)4 91 592 808
Email: passedat@relaischateaux.com

Chez Fonfon
140 Vallon des Auffes
13007 Marseille
Tel: +334 9152 1438
Fax: +334 9152 1416
Email: chezfonfon@aol.com