In Search of Bouillabaisse in Marseille
Bouillabaisse is Marseille’s signature dish. However, a bit like the city that proclaims to be its birthplace, bouillabaisse is a riddle. Is it a stew or a soup? Is it a noble dish or peasant food? Was it created by the invading Greeks or by hungry fishermen? Is it even from Marseille?
“Everyone has his own idea of what constitutes the real bouillabaisse (all other are imitations), and if a contrary opinion is suggested, he acts as if his honour has been impugned.” ~ Waverley Root noted in The Food of France.
Whether they were from Greece or Marseille, it is probably true that fishermen (or their wives) simmered unwanted fish scraps with local spices creating a watery broth. By the 19th century, the middle class had acquired a taste for this concoction. Chefs responding to their client’s tastes added tomatoes, fish stock, and saffron, which increased the cost.
Simple in concept, bouillabaisse comes from two actions, boiling the broth (bouillir) and then lowering the heat (abaisser). The high heat followed by simmering allows the spices to flavour the broth as it infuses and cooks the fish.
Chowder, cioppino, gumbo, moqueca, zarzuela… there are probably as many versions of fish soup as there are cultures. The unique flavour of bouillabaisse combines local ingredients rockfish, tomatoes, garlic, saffron, and herbs like fennel. By the 1970s, this soup was on menus throughout Marseille, once the staple of poor fishing families. However, the quality and preparation of bouillabaisse varied widely.
“Today, the musts and must nots of preparing bouillabaisse are so numerous and so contradictory that one should be prepared to break rules at will.” ~ Richard Olney
To address the lack of quality standards, chefs from nearly a dozen restaurants created la Charte de de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise (Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter) in 1980. They acknowledged that cooking is not an exact science and that a chef has the liberty to experiment with ingredients. However, the goal was to maintain consistency and ensure that clients received top-quality ingredients and service.
The Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter states that the fish should be fresh from the Mediterranean (never frozen). And must include at least four (4) of the following types:
- Scorpionfish (Rascasse) – an unattractive, bottom-feeder with a ridged head and sharp spines.
- White scorpionfish – a variation of the above.
- Red mullet – in French is rouget de roche, a goatfish prized since antiquity. The Romans reared these fish and traded them by weight for silver.
- Skate – a slow-growing, cartilaginous fish is a relative to stingrays and sharks.
- Conger eel – the largest of the eel family, can reach up to three meters in length.
- John Dory – on a French menu listed as St. Pierre (Saint Peter’s fish). Olive green in colour John Dory has long spines on its fins and a distinctive dark spot on its side.
Restaurants might suggest additional options such as spiny lobster or Cigale de Mer, a local crustacean. Tempting, but be aware that these supplements add to the cost of your meal.
“The subject of bouillabaisse is a complicated one. . . . For the ingredients, only one fish is agreed upon by everyone — rascasse. No two lists are the same, and rascasse is the only name common to all.” ~ Waverley Root wrote in his book The Food of France.
Chef François de Melogue: That may be true if you live in the Mediterranean region or have an amazing fishmonger who gets regular shipments or European fish flown in. Rascasse gives the broth a certain gelatinous viscosity and fish flavour that only a noble rockfish seems to provide.
It’s All in the Presentation
The Charter attempts to regulate serving standards for the bouillabaisse. Once cooked, the fish is presented to diners at the table. The fish must be filleted and deboned within viewing distance, so you know that you are getting what you ordered.
Like many meals in France, bouillabaisse has prescribed rituals. The first course is the broth, served in shallow bowls. Crusty rounds of bread and rouille (mayonnaise mixed with red pepper) accompany the broth. Some restaurants will also serve shredded cheese. Tip: Don’t fill up on this first course!
The second course is the fish, all four (or more) varieties served with the remaining broth. Restaurant serving staff will continue refilling your bowl until you indicate otherwise. If your table is brave enough to order the supplemental homard (lobster), it will come as your third course. Assuming that you can pay the bill, you might need a long siesta after la bouillabaisse Marseillaise.
Marseille’s signature restaurants are careful to maintain these exacting standards. There is even a door emblem indicating the establishment follows the charter.
“In its strictest form, bouillabaisse is an assertive flavoured, richly textured saffron seafood stew made from a specific list of Mediterranean fish that is always served in two courses. The worst-case gives us a barely flavored, thin broth speckled with too many vegetables that some old seafood has been laid to rest in.” ~ Chef François de Melogue
Chef François shared the following, “Eating bouillabaisse is a carefully choreographed religious ceremony, requiring 24 hours’ notice and preparation, whose consumption is performed in two sacred rites ending with genuflexion to the sacred cauldron.”
I stand by those words with more conviction today than when I originally wrote them several years back. Bouillabaisse is correctly served in two courses, starting with the pungent saffron and tomato hued broth ladled into warmed bowls and served with garlic croutons, shredded cheese, spicy rouille, and garlicky aioli. After seconds are offered, the whole fish that were poached in the broth is presented to the table, then filleted and served glistening in a thin pool of extra broth. For adherents of the bouillabaisse religion, there are certainties and expectations to be met.
Bouillabaisse is a gourmet experience. So where should you eat bouillabaisse in Marseille?
Our friends at OohProvence boutique tour company had this to say, “Bouillabaisse is a real experience of taste, texture, smells and you share it with friends or family as it’s quite large. It’s very rich and filling, you need to take your time!”
Christopher and Laurent love l’Esplaï du Grand Bar des Goudes, and the restaurant terrace overlooks the fishing boats. Goudes is a village at the eastern end of Marseille before the Calanques National Park. The restaurant first opened in 1920 and still retains a traditional fish-based menu. Christopher and Laurent say that visiting Goudes is like a voyage abroad to Greece. The village is tiny, filled with small townhouses owned by local fishermen. Goudes part of Marseille, but it feels exotic!
Chef François echos the sentiment about this restaurant. One of our first stops in Marseille is always out to Les Goudes for a meal. A down-to-earth eatery with fantastic food. Their bouillabaisse is as incredible as the setting, the staff, and of course, everything else on the menu. Local’s tip: Stop for a pastis at their bar across the street first.
l’Esplaï du Grand Bar des Goudes (website)
29 av. Désiré Pellaprat
The food is excellent, traditional, and always fresh.
Special Occasion Bouillabaisse
Here are Chef François’ gourmet restaurant picks:
If you want a perfect bouillabaisse in a gorgeous dining room, then look to no other than l’Epuisette. The restaurant’s bouillabaisse is a study in perfection. Made and served traditionally by a 1-star Michelin chef.
Vallon des Auffes
Open: Tuesday – Saturday
Chez Fonfon’s version was everything you would expect from an excellent bouillabaisse house that has been here for over 50 years. My mother used to eat here when she was younger, and it has become a family tradition. The broth was perfect, golden-hued and with a perfect balance of flavours. The second course of fish was fantastic and impeccably fresh. The portions were what one would expect from anywhere that serves bouillabaisse – gargantuan. A perfect day!
Chez Fonfon (website)
40 Rue du Vallon des Auffes,
More Bouillabaisse and Fish Recipes
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