A RECENT cooking class in the South of France started to change my opinion of French food. I am well aware that Provence is many people's idea of paradise. Its cuisine is just now as fashionable as Italy's -- in fact, it is taking over, as the pendulum swings back toward what was for centuries the one true cuisine. But I have long been a proud Francoskeptic.
Few discussions raised my hackles more than those of exactly how to make a bouillabaisse. Why be boorishly precise about a stew created to use fish or fish parts that are either unsalable or too small for any other use? Also, I don't live near a market that sells spiny Mediterranean rockfish.
But then I found myself in the middle of what Richard Olney, the American-born doyen of Provençal cooking, calls in his French Menu Cookbook authentic bouillabaisse country: the region between Toulon and Marseilles. Just down the road from the unusually modest and pleasant hill town of La Cadière-d'Azur is Domaine Tempier, a winery whose mistress, Lulu Peyraud, is a cook of legendary prowess and the muse of Alice Waters, who started Chez Panisse -- the restaurant in Berkeley, California, that inspired a generation of cooks to dream of Provence. In his most recent (and most relaxed) book, Lulu's Provençal Table, Olney devotes many pages to Peyraud's definitive bouillabaisse, which is cooked over a wood fire; its preparation is always the centerpiece of a long, hospitable afternoon.
The teacher of my cooking class, a genial and expert cook named René Bérard, who runs the first-rate hotel and restaurant Hostellerie Bérard with his wife, Danièle, actually knows this culinary goddess; the Bérards are longtime friends of the Peyrauds. Almost by accident, then (I was following one of several itineraries recently devised by the French Government Tourist Office [888-665-4373] to mix culture and adventure; I never did learn which heading a cooking class fell under), I was about to make the truest imaginable bouillabaisse.
Having worked alone for less than two hours, following Bérard's remarkably uncomplicated instructions, I sat down to a bowl of clay-red liquid that seemed to concentrate the flavors of the seacoast and the sun: the sting of sea salt, the sweet acidic note of boiled-down wine and tomatoes, the assertive pungency of garlic, and the exotic floral edge of saffron, anchored by the strong, fresh taste of the morning catch. But at first all I saw before me was a heap of glistening, flashily striped little fish.
THAT, of course, was the point. Bouillabaisse, despite the long name, is a dish that anyone can make with a minimum of ingredients and utensils. The catch is that "anyone" is supposed to live somewhere along the French or Italian Riviera, where fishermen troll for fish that have only vague counterparts in North American waters and that only occasionally appear, imported, in U.S. markets -- fish like rascasse and grondin.
It is more than possible, though, to make a creditable bouillabaisse-inspired soup in this country. In renouncing all claims to authenticity I follow the example of Gordon Hamersley, a Boston chef who makes superbly concentrated fish soups but who long ago gave up calling them "bouillabaisse," because so many of his customers have unshakable ideas of what that means. Most restaurants that dare to offer "bouillabaisse" in fact serve a cross between bouillabaisse, which depends on long cooking and a quantity of olive oil to create powerful flavor and a thick texture, and which is always served with fish chunks, and soupe de poissons, whose ingredients are less circumscribed and which is lighter in both texture and flavor. Restaurant versions of either soup often call for making a stock with fish bones and root vegetables and then starting over with fresh vegetables and fish for the soup. Bérard showed me a way to save time and still produce a strong, thick soup, with chunks of fish poached just before serving. After researching and trying various Riviera-style fish soups, I find his way the easiest and best.
The first thing is to find some fish bones and, with luck, heads, which add both gelatin and flavor. It's best (probably essential, in fact) to telephone a fish market or supermarket in advance to reserve some. Inconveniently, the bones likeliest to be offered are unsuitable: salmon, since whole farmed salmon are in regular supply. Oily fish like salmon, swordfish, shark, mackerel, and bluefish don't make good stock, although a few chunks of any of these in the final cooking will add flavor and variety, and variety of fish is one of the chief goals of a bouillabaisse -- sorry, fish soup. Ask instead for red snapper, probably the best all-around soup fish for the great flavor of the bones, head, and flesh; bass, preferably wild striped but also the easier-to-find farmed Chilean or "black" bass; grouper and porgy, common along the East Coast (Florida pink porgy most resembles the prized Mediterranean fish daurade, according to James Peterson, the author of the comprehensive Fish & Shellfish); or haddock, whiting, cusk, cobia, and other uncelebrated firm white fish sometimes sold as "chowder fish." John Dory, the French Saint-Pierre, is perfect for soup but rare. Chunks of eel, sometimes available fresh in Chinese markets or frozen in others, will add much gelatin and flavor. Avoid flatfish like sole and flounder, which will turn bitter after a half hour or so of cooking.