Fish Soup, Done Swimmingly

By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Something about hard times makes you long for the basics: for comfort instead of luxury, for cooking instead of cuisine. In these "trying times of crises and universal brouhaha," as Tom Lehrer put it, there is a backlash against elaborate, fanciful cooking. Perhaps we need a good, hearty fish soup more than we need a highbrow emulsion sauce.

The bouillabaisse of Marseille undoubtedly is one of the most famous and imitated fish soups in the world. In this dish, generations of writers and gastronomes have seen the temperament of another France: simple and straightforward rather than verbose and effete, distinctly un-aristocratic but still fiercely proud. Although Paris, with its sophistication and chic, is lovely any time of the year (when it drizzles, when it sizzles), the rough edges and charm of Marseille make it feel like a more appropriate place to seek culinary solace and inspiration, at least right now.

Much of classical French cooking is technique-driven, its quality in direct proportion to the skill of the chef. Bouillabaisse, on the other hand, presents itself as a reflection of terroir, of the landscape, or in this case the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Marseille.

Those who have not tasted a real bouillabaisse might think it is just a reddish fish soup with a hard-to-spell-name. Nothing could be further from the truth (except perhaps for the spelling difficulty). Although it has no desire to be a part of high society or haute gastronomie, treatises can be written about the do's and don'ts of a proper bouillabaisse.

Most will focus on the fish. "It is a very specific dish with a specific history," says Alexandre Pinna, co-owner of the venerable restaurant Chez Fonfon. "It was typically served by fishermen and their families."

The restaurant, one of the guardians of the traditional bouillabaisse, is in Vallon des Auffes, a fishing port in the middle of Marseille. From the table you can see the fishing boats coming in as you eat. Occasionally a waiter will point out a fisherman and tell you that it was he who caught the fish you are eating.

Most recipes call for bouillabaisse to include several -- at least five -- types of fish. It almost always contains racasse, a Mediterranean fish in the Scorpaenidae family. Anglerfish, gurnard, weever, stargazer and conger eel often are used, too, plus more delicate fish, such as whiting or different types of flatfish. (The addition of shellfish is voluntary and is seen as snobbish by most bouillabaisse purists.)

After eating bouillabaisse in Marseille, I returned home with a much deeper appreciation of the dish. It really is the world's greatest fish soup, and soon I was longing for more. Then the question posed itself: Will the secret of bouillabaisse be available to me in my home kitchen?

"Non!" say many of the authorities on the subject. According to French gastronome André Simon, a real bouillabaisse can be made only in the direct vicinity of the Mediterranean. That view is shared by Pinna, great-nephew of chef Alphonse "Fonfon" Mounier, who established the restaurant in 1952.

"It was made with the fish that would otherwise be hard to sell. Today these fishes are rare and expensive," he explains. "But there is no alternative. If you don't have the right fish, you cannot make bouillabaisse. It is as simple as that."

It is the perfect example of a regional dish that typically would never leave home. But if it is possible to make it in only one place, how has it become part of world cuisine? If we examine the traditional recipes a little closer, we can achieve not only a better understanding of a wonderful fish soup but perhaps also an illustration of the similarities between what is often wrongly referred to as "traditional" cooking on one side and "modern" or "scientific" on the other.

Universal truths and flavors can be found even in -- particularly in -- the most authentic bouillabaisse. While bouillabaisse lovers rightly emphasize the ingredients, the technique is just as unique and just as crucial.

Anyone who has eaten a true bouillabaisse will have noticed that, even if it is not thickened with flour or other starches, it is fuller, more flavorful and thicker than most other stock-based soups. The secret is that the stock is not just stock: It is an emulsion, and even though the dish was invented by fishermen over an open fire, not chefs in a kitchen, it is just as advanced as any emulsion sauce you may find in a fancy restaurant.

The way the emulsion comes about is just a little different: The fish used in the preparation of the stock are bony and are often thrown in the pot whole, with skin, head and fins on (but gills removed), and they release high levels of gelatin into the stock.

Most other soups are finished at a gentle simmer, but a true bouillabaisse is brought to an energetic boil toward the end. Hence the name: Bouill is derived from the Occitan word "to boil." Then a generous amount of olive oil is added. That leads to the special texture of the bouillabaisse: The oil seems to disappear. Although the soup seems rich, you wouldn't easily guess that it contains maybe as much as a cup of olive oil. What happens is that the agitation of the bubbles breaks down the oil into small droplets, which are coated with a stabilizing layer of gelatin and other emulsifiers in the stock. The result is not only the flavors of the Mediterranean and hundreds of years of tradition; it is also a scientific triumph in a pot.

Those who make real bouillabaise travel down the road of tradition but arrive at the same place as modern chefs who play with emulsifiers and high-tech cooking methods. The result might not seem as spectacular as something made by Pierre Gagnaire or Heston Blumenthal, or Grant Achatz or José Andrés, but in its way it is no less impressive.

If we know how a bouillabaisse is made, not just what it is made of, we can learn the limits of our attempts to re-create the soup. Without exactly the same fish, we cannot re-create exactly the same flavor. But we can make the same type of soup in texture, mouth feel and temperament.

Instead of trying to source Mediterranean fish, I use the best and freshest fish I can find, preferably as many different kinds as possible. That, I believe, is what a fisherman or a fisherman's wife would do. One day, when I buy a huge piece of halibut, whose skin and bones contain a lot of gelatin, the emulsion is thicker and richer. Another time, when I hesitantly add a mackerel, afraid that the fatty fish will be too much for the stock -- most recipes recommend not using mackerel in normal fish stocks -- the taste is indeed more powerful, but also more reminiscent of the authentic bouillabaisse.

All in all, the result is indeed an emulsion, between the certainties of a dish that will always be at its very best at its place of origin and the flexibility of a universal cooking technique that will render a wonderful result wherever it is applied. To paraphrase an old saying: As long as the fish is good and the oil plentiful, the times are good.

Andreas Viestad can be reached at

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