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.
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:
- 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.
- 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. :-)
- 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
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.
- For the Broth:
- 1kg (2.2 lbs) Rockfish
- 3-4 tbsp olive oil
- 1knob Butter
- 1litre (4 cups) Water
- 2 Leeks
- 4 Fresh Tomatoes
- 2 Banana Shallotslarge shallots
- 2 fennel bulbs
- 1tsp Black peppercorns
- 1small Bird’s-eye Chilli Pepper
- 5sprigs Fresh Lemon or Regular Thymetough stalks removed
- 1 Bay Leaf
- 1tsp Sweet Paprika
- 250ml (1 cup) Dry White Wine
- 1tsp Dried Saffronor a pinch of the saffron threads
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.