The Gastronomer

Fish Soup, Done Swimmingly

Yes, you can make a Marseille-style bouillabaisse at home.
Yes, you can make a Marseille-style bouillabaisse at home. (By Mette Randem For The Washington Post)
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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.

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