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Make Provencal Fish Soup From Scratch It’s Worth it

Deciding to make dinner for a large group takes courage. Deciding to create a menu based around a tradition Provencal fish soup, and making the whole thing from scratch is just a little bit crazy, but the results are delicious.


Seriously Fishy

Fish soup is taken seriously here in Provence. Bouillabaisse is the king of the various types of fish soups. This often takes 2 days to make, is very expensive, and would require filleting various types of different fish at the table. Not something I would be good at!

Bouillabaisse was originally a fish stew made by Marseillaise fishermen using the small, and wide variety of rockfish that were too small to sell. It’s this wide variety of fish that gives the soup its flavour. I watched some fishermen making the traditional version of Bouillabaisse at the market and I couldn’t believe all the different types of fish being thrown into the pot!

Chefs in France take their trade seriously, so it is not surprising that a Marseille -based group decided that this iconic dish required some specific ingredients and serving methodology, hence the Bouillabaisse Charter. A real Marseille bouillabaisse must include at least four Mediterranean rockfish, one of which must be racasse (scorpionfish); other typical fish are grondin (sea robin) and congre (European conger). This soup takes a long time to prepare, mainly because of the broth, which is served as the first course when you order bouillabaisse.

The name comes from two words “bouillir” (to boil) and “abaisser” (to reduce).

“A bouillabaisse, to be served in perfect conditions, should be prepared for a party of at least 6 to 7. This allows the cook to purchase a wider variety of fish. You will have to be persevere to find all the different types of fresh Mediterranean fish. If you are far from the Mediterranean, use your local white fleshed fish.” Provence Gourmet describes Bouillabaisse.


Before You Start

Make sure to read the whole recipe before starting as there are many steps. However, there are a few practical shortcuts:

  1. There are many ways to make a wonderful fish stock. My way is a simplification of a friend’s recipe using a whole lobster. For reasons of budget and a lack of lobsters here in the Mediterranean, I used the shells of the large prawns/shrimp to make the stock. If you’d rather present the dish with the shells still on the prawns, or prefer not to use them altogether, ask your fishmonger for some fresh good quality fish stock.
  2. No food processor! If you really don’t want to go through the hassle of making the soup base, that is definitely forgivable. It is possible to buy the soup base (broth), but that would take all the fun out of this culinary project. 🙂
  3. You can buy delicious rouille already made at fishmongers in Provence. Otherwise, here is a rouille recipe.

Heavy lifting! The bulk of the work is in preparing the soup broth, but it can (and should) be made in advance.

For this recipe, you will need a food mill or a cone-shaped Chinese strainer (the type that looks like a metal fishing net). The food mill (moulin à legumes) provides a bit of mechanical assistance where the metal strainer requires your full effort to crush the fish bones and cartilage.

Rockfish (Poissons de roche) are ugly, but it is the variety of fish and the bones that add to the flavour for the broth base (see above). This is a Mediterranean mix of small fish that live close to the rocks, including many of the same varieties used whole later in the traditional bouillabaisse. You may even get a couple crabs in there if you are lucky.

Provencal Fish Soup Recipe
Provencal Fish Soup
Print Recipe
I created this recipe to be beautiful, tasty (of course) as well as relatively budget-friendly. There are lots of vegetables in the stock and base as I was aiming for an aromatic soup. You can substitute the cod for other fish, but I found it’s fleshy texture the most delicious and practical for my presentation.
Servings Prep Time
4 people 2 hours
Cook Time
3-4 hours
Servings Prep Time
4 people 2 hours
Cook Time
3-4 hours
Provencal Fish Soup Recipe
Provencal Fish Soup
Print Recipe
I created this recipe to be beautiful, tasty (of course) as well as relatively budget-friendly. There are lots of vegetables in the stock and base as I was aiming for an aromatic soup. You can substitute the cod for other fish, but I found it’s fleshy texture the most delicious and practical for my presentation.
Servings Prep Time
4 people 2 hours
Cook Time
3-4 hours
Servings Prep Time
4 people 2 hours
Cook Time
3-4 hours
Ingredients
For the Soup Base (Broth):
The Fish:
  • 8 Tiger Prawns you can buy these frozen
  • 4 pieces (200g each) cod square pieces work best
  • 200 gr Fresh Mussels (about 4 each) shells cleaned
For Serving:
Servings: people
Instructions
Make the Fish Stock:
  1. Make the Fish Stock
  2. Separate the shells and heads of the cleaned tiger pawns.
  3. There are many ways to make a wonderful fish stock. My way is a simplification of a friend’s recipe using a whole lobster. For reasons of budget and a lack of lobsters here in the Mediterranean, I used the shells of the large prawns/shrimp to make the stock. If you’d rather present the dish with the shells still on the prawns, or prefer not to use them altogether, ask your fishmonger for some fresh good quality fish stock.
  4. Remove the shells from the prawns, clean them, and re-refrigerate the prawns.
  5. Throw the shells into a hot pan with a glug of olive oil and a small knob of butter.
  6. Fry the shells on a medium-high heat until they start to take on some colour. Don’t be shy.
  7. When they’re browned, add 1 litre of water and make sure to deglaze the pan by scraping off all the tasty bits on the bottom.
  8. Leave to simmer on a low heat for 1 hour, skimming the surface every so often to remove the impurities.
  9. Strain and set aside to cool.
  10. Passing the fish through the food mill requires patience- but it’s worth it!
Make the Soup Base:
  1. Chop all the vegetables and place in a bowl ready.
  2. Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a large pan. Add the vegetables and cook on a medium heat until softened.
  3. Meanwhile, rinse the rock fish well.
  4. Deglaze the pan with the white wine, scrape the bottom of the pan.
  5. Add the rest of the herbs and spices except the saffron.
  6. Add the rock fish.
  7. Cover to the top of the ingredients with the fish stock.
  8. Simmer on a low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 hr.
  9. Periodically skim the scum off the surface with a spoon.
  10. Take off the heat, allow to cool.
  11. Ladle the cooled mixture into your food mill with the second to smallest metal strainer. Turn the handle until what remains in the top is quite dry. Remove this and start again with the next batch. Continue until done. Now you have the base (broth) for bouillabaisse!
Cook the Fish:
  1. *The easiest thing to do next would be to reheat the soup, and poach the fish until just cooked (no longer) in the broth. However, for presentation purposes, I chose to pan-fry my fish in butter separately.
  2. Reheat the soup.
  3. Peel and boil the small potatoes so that they’re ready for serving. We boiled them separately because we found their yellow colour a welcome contrast to the soup. However, you can always throw them in the pot and boil them in the soup.
  4. Pan fry or poach the cod filets (about 10 minutes depending on thickness).
  5. Pan fry or poach the tiger prawns (about 3 minutes).
  6. Add the mussels to the soup.
  7. Add the saffron to the soup.
  8. At this point, season the soup to taste with salt. Note: The mussels will add some salt, especially if they’re Mediterranean mussels, so wait until they open.
  9. Add another chilli pepper if you like the heat.
Serving & Presentation:
  1. Add the cod to the bowls.
  2. Carefully ladle the soup around the cod, add the tiger prawns and mussels.
  3. Place the chervil on the cod.
  4. Serve with rouille on croutons and dry white wine from Cassis.
    Provencal Fish Soup Recipe
Recipe Notes

I would suggest making the broth the day before serving the soup.

You may be surprised to learn that the fish are pressed in their entirety, bones and all, to create this soup. There are two ways this can be done, the traditional way with a food mill, as I did, or the restaurant way, that requires even more effort, to pass vigorously through a chinoise. The idea is to remove the largest bones. Meanwhile, the smallest will dissolve into the soup, making it thick. A food processor will not achieve this.

If you’ve bought fennel bulbs with some of the fronds still on, reserve them to decorate the dish for serving.

Can’t find chervil or fennel fronds? Use a sprig of parsley instead, its the same family of herbs.

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Ashley Tinker

Ashley Tinker

Ashley was born and raised in Montréal, Canada. She has always been drawn to the history, way of life and beauty of Europe. Her feelings for Europe were reconfirmed while studying art in Florence, Italy. Ashley says that stone buildings, colourful shutters and terra cotta tile rooftops fill her dreams and now her days.

Ashley moved to Provence in 2014 with her partner Robin (he also shares her Francophile passions). They are in search of the French joie de vivre, which they find at every turn in the local markets and natural beauty of Provence. This couple are indulging in local olives and wine as the Provencal sunshine changes craggy rocks into things of beauty.

You can see all of Ashley's blog posts on Curious Provence.

Take a look at Ashley's beautiful fine art photography on her Photographer in Provence website.

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