The Secrets Of Bouillabaisse (Fish Stew From Marseille)

Calling “Bouillabaisse” fish stew is already a misnomer: it’s far more than that. This emblematic dish of the city of Marseille on the French Mediterranean coast has fish in it (of course), but can also have shellfish, herbs, spices and vegetables of considerable variety. As for the question of what exactly goes to make a bouillabaisse, there seem to be almost as many secret recipes as there are chefs to cook them. However, after its origins in ancient Greece and its adoption by Marseille from the time the city was founded over 2,500 years ago, there’s now an official charter to say what ought to go in it.

The first “rule” is to use at least four different types of fish from the Mediterranean. The choice is wide: take your pick from fish like the “rascasse” (rockfish),   “grondin” (gurnard), “lotte” (monkfish), “daurade” (bream), “congre” (conger eel) and “merlan” (whiting) to start with. Make sure you also have olive oil, garlic, saffron, onions, fennel, tomatoes and potatoes to hand. And to cook it correctly, remember what the name means: in Provençal, the language spoken before in the South of France, the two words “boui abaisso”, thought to be at the origin of the name bouillabaisse, mean in French “quand ça bout, tu baisses” or “when it boils, turn it down”.

Depending on your preferences, you can also add crab, lobster and whelks for example (although the charter stops short of mentioning whelks). However, what is of prime importance is that the ingredients are all fresh and of good quality, and that the cooking is long enough to cook properly and bring out the flavor, but short enough to ensure that all the fish meat remains firm. The finishing touch is to serve the bouillabaisse with another typical French invention from the South of France, the “rouille” sauce; “rouille” means rust, and refers to the reddish color of the sauce.

Naturally, all of this comes at a price. Finding the finest and freshest fish is not the cheapest way of preparing a meal and ingredients like saffron can be expensive. The French however with their liking for puns have risen to the occasion to also call bouillabaisse “(le) seul plat français permettant de facturer la rouille au prix du fer forge” (Philippe Bouvard) –meaning, the only French dish that allows rust (a play on words with the “rouille” sauce) to be charged for at the same price as wrought iron.