Bouillabaisse is a traditional Provençal fish stew originating from Marseille. The name comes from the Provençal Occitan word bolhabaissa, a compound that consists of the two verbs bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to reduce heat, i.e.,simmer).
A traditional bouillabaisse contains at least 3 types of fish plus shellfish and other seafood. More expensive versions may add langoustine. Vegetables such as leeks, onions, tomatoes, celery and potatoes are simmered together with the broth and served with the fish. The broth is traditionally served first with a rouille, a mayonnaise made of olive oil, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper, and large croutons. Next, the fish and vegetables are served on a separate platter. The fish is presented whole, and is cut and filleted at the table.
What makes a bouillabaisse different from other fish soups is the selection of Provençal herbs and spices in the broth; the use of bony local Mediterranean fish; the way the fish are added one at a time, in a certain order, and brought to a boil; and the method of serving.
The most important element of any bouillabaisse is FRESH fish. In Marseille there is no excuse for not having fresh fish; it is readily available at the fish market that takes place every morning on Quai des Belges. Get there early and you’ll see the stall set up and waiting for the boat to arrive. It comes straight from the boat to the stall, to your shopping bag to your table!
For those now tempted to make their own, here is a recipe courtesy of Rick Stein. It is somewhat anglicised, to allow for the fact that the small rock fish called for by a traditional bouillabaisse aren’t normally available in England.
4kg of any of the following fish: wrasse, dogfish, black bream, red bream, monkfish, cod or hake, weever, trigger fish, gurnard, red mullet, bass, John Dory, bream, skate, conger eel, grey mullet – the more variety the better
3 medium onions, roughly chopped
1lb/450g tomatoes, peeled and chopped, reserving the skins
3 pints/1.7 litres water
3fl oz/90ml olive oil
12 thin slices of French bread
white of a large leek, roughly chopped
2 sticks of celery, thinly sliced
1 large bulb fennel, thinly sliced
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
freshly ground black pepper
2in/5cm piece of orange peel
1 level teaspoon saffron
1 sprig of thyme
1lb/450g mussels, washed and scraped clean of barnacles, with beards pulled out
1/2lb/225g shellfish: slices of lobster or crayfish, or langoustine or prawns in the shell
1 teaspoon of chopped fennel herb, with a few leaves of thyme, to sprinkle over the cooked fish
For the rouille:
20z/60g dry bread soaked in fish stock (see below)
6 cloves garlic
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons/90ml harissa (spicy chilli sauce available from good continental food shops)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 pint/450ml olive oil
Fillet all the fish except the skate (if you are using it). Cut the fillets so that they are all about the same size.
To make the stock: put one third of the onions in the bottom of a large pan with the tomato skins. Place all the fish trimmings on top and add the water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Strain the stock.
Make the rouille by putting all the ingredients for it in a food processor and blending. Then pour in the oil as for making mayonnaise.
Fry the French bread in a little olive oil till light gold colour. Rub with garlic and keep warm.
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan large enough to hold all the fish and stock. Soften the rest of the onions, leek, celery, fennel and garlic. Season with black pepper. Add the orange peel, tomatoes, saffron, thyme, bay leaves and fish stock and bring to the boil, whisking as it comes to the boil to aid the emulsion of oil and stock.
Now add the fish, putting the firmer-fleshed fish like conger eel, dogfish and skate in first. Add the softer fish and mussels a couple of minutes later. Boil only till the fish is just cooked (about 5 minutes).
Add the shellfish and boil for a further half minute. Strain the soup through a colander and place all the fish, mussels, shellfish and vegetables in a large warm dish. The mussels and shellfish should be left in the shell. Scatter with the chopped fennel and thyme and put the croutons on top.
Return the strained soup to the saucepan and test for seasoning. Boil the soup very vigorously for one more minute, whisking as you do to liaise oil and water. Now pour some of the soup over the fish and croutons. Serve the rest in a warm tureen. I think the nicest way to eat the bouillabaisse is to spoon both fish and soup into a soup bowl and stir in a dollop of rouille; but you can if you like treat the fish and soup as two separate courses. Certainly the fish cooked this way, in stock rather than water, will not have lost all its flavour to the soup.