Bouillabaisse (Occitan: "bolhabaissa") is a traditional Provençal fish stew originating from the port city of Marseille. The French and English form "bouillabaisse" comes from the Provençal Occitan word "bolhabaissa" IPA| [ˌbujaˈbajsɔ] , a compound that consists of the two verbs "bolhir" (to boil) and "abaissar" (to lower (heat)).

Bouillabaisse is a fish stock containing different kinds of cooked fish and shellfish and vegetables, flavored with a variety of herbs and spices such as garlic, orange peel, basil, bay leaf, fennel and saffron. There are at least three kinds of fish in a traditional bouillabaisse, typically scorpionfish (fr: "rascasse"); sea robin (fr: "grondin"); and European conger (fr: "congre"); and it can also include gilt-head bream (fr: "dorade"); turbot; monkfish (fr: "lotte" or "baudroie"); mullet; or silver hake (fr: "merlan") It also usually includes shellfish and other seafood such as sea urchins (fr: "oursins"), mussels (fr: "moules"); small crabs (fr: "etrilles"); spider crab (fr: araignées de mer) or octopus. More expensive versions may add langoustine. Vegetables such as leeks, onions, tomatoes, celery and potatoes are boiled together with the broth and served with the fish. The broth is traditionally served with a rouille, a mayonnaise made of olive oil, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper on grilled slices of bread. In Marseille, the broth is served first in a bowl containing the bread and rouille, with the seafood and vegetables served separately in another bowl or on a platter.

The Classic Marseille Bouillabaisse

There are as many recipes for bouillabaisse as there are families in Marseille, and local restaurants dispute which versions are the most authentic.

In Marseille, bouillabaisse is rarely made for less than ten persons- the more who share the meal, the more different fish that are included, and the better the bouillabaisse.

A real Marseille bouillabaisse must include "rascasse" (eng: scorpionfish), a bony rockfish which lives in the calanque and reefs close to shore. It usually also has "congre" (eng: European conger) and "grondin" (eng: sea robin). ["La bouillabaisse classique doit comporter les 'trois poissons': rascasse, grondin, congre." "Michelin Guide Vert -Côte dAzur", 1990, page 31 ] . According to the "Michelin Guide Vert", the four essential elements of a true bouillabaisse are the presence of rascasse, the freshness of the fish; a real olive oil, and an excellent saffron. [ "Michelin Guide Vert -Côte dAzur", 1990, page 31]

The American chef and food writer Julia Child, who lived in Marseille for a year, wrote: "to me the telling flavor of bouillabaisse comes from two things: the Provençal soup base - garlic, onions, tomatoes, olive oil, fennel, saffron, thyme, bay, and usually a bit of dried orange peel - and, of course, the fish - lean (non-oily), firm-fleshed, soft-fleshed, gelatinous, and shellfish." [ Julia Child, My Life in France, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2006. Pg. 174 ]

This is the recipe of one of the most traditional Marseille restaurants, Grand Bar des Goudes on Rue Désirée-Pelleprat. [Jean-Louis André, "Cuisines des pays de France", Éditions du Chêne, 2001 ] :

4 kilograms of fish and shellfish:

* "grondin" (eng. sea robin)
* "Rascasse blanche" (eng. scorpionfish);
* "rouget grondin" (red Gurnard);
* "congre" (eng. conger);
* "baudroie" (lotte, or monkfish);
* "saint-pierre" (eng. John Dory);
* live octopus [ Octopus is used in bouillabaisse only in the Goudes quarter of Marseille, according to Jean Louis André, "Cuisines des Pays de France" ]
*10 sea urchins
*1 kilogram of potatoes
*7 cloves of garlic
*3 onions
*5 ripe tomatoes
*1 cup of olive oil
*1 bouquet garni
*1 branch of fennel
*8 pistils of saffron
*10 slices of pain de campagne (country bread)
*salt and Cayenne pepper

The Rouille
*1 egg yolk
*2 cloves of garlic
*1 cup of olive oil
*10 pistils of saffron
*salt and Cayenne pepper

1. Clean and scale the fish and wash them, if possible in sea water. Cut them into large slices, leaving the bones. Wash the octopus and cut into pieces.

2. Put the olive oil in a large casserole. Add the onions, cleaned and sliced; 6 cloves of garlic, crushed; the pieces of octopus, and the tomatoes peeled and quartered, without seeds. Brown at low heat, turning gently for five minutes, for the oil to take in the flavors.

3. Add the sliced fish, beginning with the thickest to the smallest. Cover with boiling water, and add the salt and the pepper, the fennel, the bouquet garni and the saffron. Boil at a low heat, stirring from time to time so the fish doesn't stick to the casserole. Correct the seasoning. The bouillabaise is cooked when the juice of the cooking is well blended with the oil and the water. (about twenty minutes).

4. Prepare the rouille: Remove the stem of the garlic, crush the cloves into a fine paste in a mortar. Add the egg yolk and the saffron, then blend in the olive oil little by little to make a mayonnaise, stirring it with the pounder of the mortar.

5. Cook the potatoes, peeled and boiled and cut into large slices, in salted water for 15 to 20 minutes. Open the sea urchins with a pair of scissors and remove the "Corail" with a small spoon.

6. Arrange the fish on a platter. Add the "corail" of the sea urchins into the broth and stir.

Serve the bouillon very hot with the rouille in bowls over thick slices of bread rubbed with garlic. Then serve the fish and the potatoes on a separate platter.

Another version of the classic Marseille bouillabaisse, presented in the "Petit LaRousse de la Cuisine," uses congre, dorade, grondin, lotte, merlan, rascasse, saint-pierre, and small crabs (etrilles), and includes leeks. In this version, the heads and trimmings of the fish are put together with onions, celery and garlic browned in olive oil, and covered with boiling water for twenty minutes. Then the vegetables and bouquet garni are added, and then the pieces of fish in a specific order; first the rascasse, then the grondin, the lotte, congre, dorade, etrilles, and saffran. The dish is cooked for eight minutes over high heat. Then the most delicate fish, the saint pierre and merlan, are added, and the dish is cooked another 5-8 minutes. The broth is then served over bread with the rouille on top, and the fish and crabs are served on a large platter. [ "Petit LaRousse de la Cuisine", LaRousse (1998)]

Other variations add different seasonings, such as orange peel, and sometimes a cup of white wine or cognac is added. [See the "Michelin Guide Vert, Côte d'Azur, pg.31" (in French), for this version. ]

History and Legend

According to tradition, the origins of the dish date back to the time of the Phoceans, an Ancient Greek people who founded Marseille in 600 BC. Then, the population ate a simple fish stew known in Greek as 'kakavia.' Something similar to Bouillabaisse also appears in Roman mythology: it is the soup that Venus fed to Vulcanfact.

The dish known today as bouillabaisse was created by Marseille fishermen who wanted to make a meal when they returned to port. They could not use the more expensive fish that they intended for the market, so they boiled the common rockfish and shellfish that they pulled up with their nets and lines, usually fish that were too bony to serve in restaurants, cooking them in a cauldron of sea water on a wood fire and seasoning them with garlic and fennel. Tomatoes were added to the recipe in the 17th century, after their introduction from America.

In the 19th century, as Marseille became more prosperous, restaurants and hotels began to serve bouillabaisse to upper-class patrons. The recipe of bouillabaisse became more refined, with the substitution of fish stock for boiling water, and the addition of saffron, brought by ship from the French colonies and ports of the Middle East and Asia.Bouillabaisse spread from Marseille to Paris, and then gradually around the world, adapted to local ingredients and tastes.

Three of the best-known restaurants in Marseille for traditional bouillabaisse are Le Miramar, on the Vieux Port; Chez Fonfon, at 140, Vallon des Auffes, and the Grand Bar des Goudes, Rue Desire-Péléprat. [ Jean-Louis André, "Cuisines des Pays de France, histoires et recettes." Editions du Chêne, 1998. Chez Fonfon and Miramar are also cited in the Michelin Red Guide since at least 1997 for their traditional bouillabaisse.]

The name bouillabaisse comes from the method of the preparation - the ingredients are not added all at once. The broth is first boiled ("bouillir") then the different kinds of fish are added one by one, and each time the broth comes to a boil, the heat is lowered ("abaisser").

This dish is used in an important plot point in the movie Our Man Flint. It is also mentioned in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Sources and Citations

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