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.
If you can obtain whole fish and want to practice your filleting technique, use the bones and head for the base and poach the fillets during the final ten minutes. Otherwise, ask the fishmonger to fillet and sell you an assortment of fish that won't fall apart when simmered lightly in a soup. Monkfish, with its firm texture and lobsterlike flavor, is apt; if you can find the nubbly trimmings of tail (better yet, the head, though it's fearsome to behold), they will contribute greatly to a satiny feel.
The bones and head must be thoroughly cleaned of gills, blood, and bits of viscera: run cold water over them until it turns clear. Cut the fish frames, as they are called, into lengths of about four inches, thus exposing more gelatin-releasing surfaces to the water. When Rick Moonen, an exuberant chef who specializes in fish at the Manhattan restaurant Oceana, gave me a lesson, he told me to rap the back of a knife against the vertebrae to expose the richest and most gelatinous part of the big grouper frames he had on hand. Other than fish, the ingredients are few and simple, as befits a dish originally associated with fishing villages. You will need a good deal of olive oil, a Mediterranean staple, which gives the soup body. The olive oil should be light in flavor. Don't use one that is unctuous on the tongue, or the fruity kind good for salads: it will overpower the soup. The full quantity of oil is necessary to achieve the right consistency and flavor. If you want to reduce fat, you can chill the soup overnight or for several days and skim off the oil; the flavor improves after a day.
FOR four pounds of fish bones and heads and two and a half to three pounds of fish fillets, which will serve six as a main course, have ready three quarters of a cup of olive oil; one and a half cups of onion, peeled and roughly diced; a medium head of garlic, sliced in half crosswise to expose a cross-section of each of the cloves (you could peel and smash each clove, but Bérard prepared the garlic this way, and I found it easy and good); half a cup of trimmed and chopped celery; one cup of roughly chopped stalks of fresh bulb fennel, with the fronds washed, chopped, and reserved for a garnish; one tablespoon of dried herbes de Provence, or any combination of thyme, rosemary, and marjoram; one bay leaf or, if you can find them at a Greek or Middle Eastern market, two European bay laurel leaves, whose flavor is much different and milder (on a recent trip to Crete, I fell in love with these bay leaves, which grow as luxuriantly there as the wild greens on which many of the island's residents have subsisted for centuries, and which are becoming a mania among avant-garde chefs); half a teaspoon of stem saffron (that is, the filaments of flower pistils, not a red ground mixture, which is likely to be adulterated); half a teaspoon of hot red-pepper flakes; two cups of an acidic white wine; and four cups of ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks with the stems removed, or three cups of drained and rinsed canned tomatoes, or two cups of tomato puree (I like the Pomì brand, which is sold in aseptic packages).
Either before or just after you start making the soup base, prepare a marinade for the fish fillets (keep on the skin, which will hold the chunks together when they are cooked) with an additional cup of finely minced bulb fennel, three or four tablespoons of olive oil, half a teaspoon of saffron, salt and pepper to taste, and, for an authentic touch, two tablespoons of pastis, Pernod, or other anise-flavored liqueur (anisette is too syrupy). Do not add lemon juice, which will begin to "cook" the fish, as in a seviche. Toss together well, cover, and set aside in the refrigerator. The fennel will cook along with the flavored fish during the last five to ten minutes; the saffron will have suffused the fish, and will add a final and important burst of flavor to the soup.
Warm the olive oil for the stock in a large, heavy pot (enameled cast iron is ideal) and add the onion, garlic, celery, and fennel. The fennel that helped to make bouillabaisse famous is wild fennel, which looks like big stalks of dill and has a less sweet, sharper anise flavor than cultivated bulb fennel; it grows on California roadsides but is hard to find at markets. Depending on your love of garlic, add either half or the whole head; it will sweeten as it cooks, and its flavor is essential to the soup. Cook this mixture, partly covered, stirring often, over medium heat until the vegetables begin to exude their liquids and turn translucent. Do not let them brown.
Place the cleaned bones and heads over the vegetables one layer at a time, sprinkling each layer with coarse salt (sea salt is ideal) to draw out flavor and make the soup savory. Place the herbs, bay leaf, and saffron just below the top layer of bones. Add the hot pepper flakes to taste. I've recently become enamored of the sweetly nuanced heat of crushed red pepper from Kahramanmaras, a city in southeastern Turkey, which is being sold through Zingerman's (the mail-order number is 313-769-1625). Several food scholars and Mediterranean mavens, including Paula Wolfert and Aglaia Kremezi, fell in love with this rare and superb chili, and urged that it be imported. The flakes are a beautiful copper-rust color, like saffron.
Wine strengthens the flavor of the soup, and so I recommend using it, especially if you haven't made the soup before -- although, like Bérard, I prefer the clear flavor of water only. Add the two cups of wine and then water to bring the liquid just below the surface of the bones. You could add two more tablespoons of Pernod or pastis from the bottle, saving an additional tablespoon to add at the end; or you could be French and flame the liqueur in a small pan, pouring it hot over the fish bones. Bring to a simmer and cook, partly covered, for twenty minutes. Add the tomatoes and boil, partly covered, for another forty-five minutes to an hour. More time won't hurt. This long and hard boiling is when the oil binds with the other components, giving the soup its uniquely thick texture.
I tried several ways of pureeing the soup. My favorite is still the one Bérard demonstrated, and the one any French home cook would use: pass the soup, bones and all, through a food mill and then through a sieve. (Cheesecloth would trap the oil and thin the texture.) Cranking the soup through a food mill is admittedly easier with small Mediterranean fish bones than with big Atlantic ones. If you do use a food mill, remove large heads and big pieces of bone first.
Today in most households the food mill has been supplanted by the food processor. My experiments using one resulted in a grainy, chalky texture even after I passed the puree through a sieve; I don't recommend it. I had far better results pureeing about a quarter of the soup in a blender, a method I do recommend to thicken it. You'll need to remove any heads or large pieces of bone beforehand (and take care, of course, not to overfill the container, especially if the liquid remains hot). Then pour the remainder of the soup (or all of it, if you have neither a blender nor a food mill) through a large strainer or colander, mashing the solids with a wooden spoon. Remove the fillets from the refrigerator and allow them to come to room temperature.
Return the pureed soup to a clean pot and bring to a simmer. If you like, add two cups of thick-sliced waxy potatoes (the kind for potato salad, which hold their shape) and simmer them for twenty minutes to a half hour before adding the fish. Otherwise add the fish fillets along with their marinade and simmer for five to ten minutes, just until they turn opaque. An elegant way to serve the soup is to lift out the cooked chunks and lay several at the bottom of each soup bowl, decorate them with chopped fennel tops, and bring the soup to the table in a tureen to be ladled into each bowl.
In Provence bouillabaisse is at least a two-course meal. First diners put into the empty soup bowl a rough-sliced, oven-dried or grilled piece of bread smeared with aioli, the garlic mayonnaise, or its cousin rouille, a sauce flavored with red pepper as well as garlic and thickened with bread crumbs; when the soup is ladled over the bread, the emulsified sauce further thickens the soup. Then the cook passes separately the fish chunks (a swell bouillabaisse features as a showpiece a whole fish, poached in the soup in the last twenty minutes), and potatoes if there are any. Diners take more soup and more bread and aioli and carry on. (For several variations on the now-ubiquitous aioli and rouille and a cogent explanation of how they differ, see Barbara Kafka's Party Food.)
I prefer simply serving toasted country bread drizzled with olive oil and, for garlic-lovers, rubbed with a fresh halved garlic clove, even if raw garlic at serving time is untraditional. Few things are as elemental and Mediterranean as bread, tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic. A fish soup laced with saffron and made in my own kitchen, even with Atlantic fish, easily carries me back to the genial M. Bérard and his iridescent bounty from the morning's catch.
Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of The Joy of Coffee (1995).
Illustration by Philippe Weisbecker
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1997; In a Fishbowl; Volume 280, No. 3; pages 104-107.