I wrote a few weeks ago in my French in a Flash column that two great ladies came out of Marseille: my mother, and Bouillabaisse.
We had been in the South for two weeks, and I had had plenty of time with the former. We took boat tours through the Calanques together, climbed the steep stone steps to Les Baux, and negotiated the pebbly shores of Cassis. I can never quite have my fill of maman, but I had not even so much as had a taste of bouillabaisse. I had been saving the (second to) best for last, and I had made a reservation for our last night.
The locals in Cassis, a short half-hour journey in a tiny car along the cliff-drop crags overlooking the coast, had a lot of opinions on where to find the best bouillabaisse in the style of Marseille. Chez Gilbert got the most votes, so I booked a table for four on the terrace, and off we went--stomachs empty, and wallets soon to follow suit.
When we arrived, we nipped into a bottle of rosé from Bandol, and that, of course, got us talking. The table next to us were several bottles in, and they admitted to having come down all the way from Paris just for the Bouillabaisse at Chez Gilbert in Cassis. They were slightly tipsy, but I figured, in vino veritas. This was an excellent sign.
When the waiter arrived, I was ashamed that none in the party other than myself would be sampling the famed bouillabaisse. Maman, bless her heart, ordered Maine lobster. Make of that what you will. I suppose as a true Marsaillaise, she has the right to order whatever she likes. They all said they'd try a bit of mine. Ha! I scoffed. I'll fight you for it.
When it came to me, I demanded of the waiter what types of fish were in that night's special Marseille bouillabaisse. This was, after all, for the sake of Serious Research. He rattled off six different fishes, and the only ones I had ever heard of before were monkfish and scorpionfish--rascasse, as it is known there, which lives in the Calanques rocks and had turned up ceviche style on my salad a week before. So, I knew they were local, and when they arrived tableside a few minutes later, I knew they were whole. I also ordered a green salad.
"Oh, no, madame," the waiter admonished. "When you eat bouillabaisse, you eat nothing else."
Bouillabaisse is an iconic fish stew, and one that I deconstructed for my first French in a Flash column here on Serious Eats. Its name derives from two words: bouillir and baisser--to boil, and to lower the heat. It originated in Marseille, where the fishermen used the local fishes and seafood of the rocks to make something for themselves after they had sold all the larger, more expensive fish to the restaurateurs. Traditionally, many kinds of fish and potatoes are simmered in fish stock with white wine, fennel, onions, garlic, herbs, tomatoes, and saffron. It seems that all of France was affected by the Revolution; just as is the way with most French peasant food, bouillabaisse soon became a dish for kings.
Its broth is thick, and almost gritty, from the bits of fish and bone that have simmered and flavored it. The fish is served, usually for a crowd, at the center of the table, where it is stained with the spices of the broth. The smoky garlic pow of the rouille slices through the thick, muddled, distinctive saffron soup. It has a powerful continuity of flavor, but is yet different with each bite of unidentifiable white fish.
Back to Chez Gilbert, where the real thing was being cooked up, I was waiting, sitting on fish pin bones and needles, waiting for my stew to be ready. The waiter arrived with the six fish, whole, and the six boiled potatoes, peeled, nestled neatly on a silver platter. I nodded. Yup, there they were. "Now," he said with a flourish, "I will prepare them for you."
He went back into the kitchen and soon he emerged with the fish neatly filleted and piled on top of the potatoes. Another waiter came with a huge silver urn filled with the broth, much like soupe de poisson, and yet another with rouille and a basket of baguette toasts.
Rouille is a kind of aïoli, or fresh garlic mayonnaise, flavored with saffron and red pepper. Its name means rust, which is also its color. It is served as a requisite with bouillabaisse and soupe de poisson. I slathered into onto a baguette toast, and got eating.
Bouillabaisse, and its rouille, is an evocative dish. It tastes of history. As we sat in the port of Cassis, and Edith Piaf's accordeoniste played "Moon River" gently as the sailboats danced with waves that hummed back and forth to the tune, you knew that, even though the dish cost enough and was served from silver, it was, after all, a stew. A local dish. These fish had spawned and schooled in these rocks, among these keels. The tomatoes had come from America centuries ago, shipped through this port. The saffron came the same way. One ingredient from the West, one from the East, but all converging on this busy harbor, gateway on the Mediterranean. You could see the turmoil of France's history, as a peasant stew came to encompass saffron and langoustines, served on white tablecloths to those with a silver spoon in their mouths. And in the rouille, the garlic that had perfumed Provence for millennia, the espelette drawn from just in the Pyrenees. The baguette, so iconic, and with which everything must be eaten. It was food for thought, and it was lovely.
And after all, as it turns out, six fishes and six potatoes are indeed too much for my ashamed little stomach. Everyone at the table had a taste--or rather, a fillet. And the Parisians at the table next door grinned ruddy, drunken grins of satisfied happiness at my delight. The waiter came to the table.
"Ça a ete?"
"Une merveille!" And he was right. Where there is bouillabaisse, there is nothing else.