Among fish dishes, bouillabaisse is still considered the ultimate discipline. No doubt about it, this is a fantastic soup. But what’s equally interesting is how well her recipe story reflects our – even dubious – relationship with fish.
Its origins are said to date back more than 2,500 years to a soup made by Phocaean seafarers that contained only fish and water. The predecessors of bouillabaisse may have come from the Marseille district of Catalonia since the 16th century, also because saffron was known there. Despite the seasonings, this kind of fish soup was a poor man’s dish, which fishermen seasoned with by-catch and hard-to-sell fish species (the taste was excellent, by the way). But it was soon refined, and even the first official recipe, “Bouil-Abaisse à la Marseillaise,” published in Charles Durand’s “Le cuisinier Durand” in 1830, listed such noble ingredients as sea bass and lobster.
In the heyday of late modern tourism, bouillabaisse became the trump card of restaurateurs in the French Mediterranean. The chefs outdid each other with their abundance and allegedly original recipes. And with rampant overfishing and price pressures increasingly lying about ingredients, a group of French chefs felt compelled in 1980 to come up with a “charter” of exactly what goes into bouillabaisse. Various hard-fleshed rockfish, for example; red or brown scorpion fish, monkfish, sea urchin, rockfish or John Dory – species that have become increasingly expensive and are often difficult to find even in Mediterranean fish markets today.
Boiled soup is therefore less and less cooked at home in France. Seafood is known to many these days as sticks, impeccable salmon and tuna steaks, or if you want to get really fancy, scallops or tiger prawns. The great legacy of bouillabaisse is that something supposedly worthless, even what we commonly and mistakenly think of as waste – fish heads, carcasses, fins – can be made into something that is very tasty. Bouillabaisse has many variations and auspicious simplifications, consistent only with the soup, whose name was often found above recipes in Provençal cookbooks that did not contain any fish at all. The name consists of broth (cook) and s’abaisser (lower) because the stew is brought to a boil first and then the temperature is lowered (and yes: there are other explanations for the derivation).
François Régis-Gaudry has documented a particularly simple and inexpensive, if somewhat rustic, version of bouillabaisse for his “Gourmet Bible France” (Christian-Verlag). We’ve added a few tricks to the original recipe here.
For about 1 kilo of fish, you use 2 liters of liquid, water is recommended, but it doesn’t hurt to replace some of it with white wine. Glazing vegetables with Noilly Prat also enhances the aroma. The type of fish doesn’t matter in this case, it can be of different types, it’s best to get extra cheap ones and have the dealer clean them, heads and carcasses also work of course. If larger specimens are available, they may be filleted, whereby the fillets are initially set aside and their weight is not taken into account in the fish-to-water ratio. If you can, crabs in the soup are also good.
For the soup, brown 1 large diced onion and finely chopped fennel onion in 3 tbsp olive oil in a roasting pan; Add three minced garlic cloves, three peeled and diced tomatoes, a little fennel seed, 3 thyme sprigs, 3 bay leaves and a large piece of orange peel, and the whole fish and stir-fry. If the fish gets muddy and falls off the bones: no problem! Pour in the liquid and simmer for about 20-30 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, saffron and a pinch of pastis and leave to simmer. Then wring everything through a cloth (wear gloves because of the bones!), squeeze out the solid parts well and roll up the cloth tightly to get all the flavor into the soup. If you have fish fillets, you can leave them in pieces in the soup. Vegetable julienne and toast with aioli or rouille are also good.
A very simple recipe from the wonderful freshwater fish cookbook “Abenteuer Fisch” (Alexander and Katja Quester, Joachim Gradwohl, Brandstätter-Verlag) also shows how effectively you can flavor dishes with fish (residues): parsnip soup with smoked fish aroma. To do this, let 500 ml of butter boil and pass it through a sieve. Peel 200 g of parsnips and 2 shallots, chop and brown in a little olive oil, cover with buttermilk and 500 ml of vegetable broth and simmer until the parsnip is soft. Add 125 ml of sour cream, puree and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. At the end, let the remaining skin of the smoked fish (or only half of it) soak in the soup for about five minutes and take it out again, but without boiling the skin, otherwise the soup will become rancid. Add chopped parsley and bread slices toasted in a pan with a little oil.
Of course, pieces of smoked fish can also be added to the soup just before serving, but that would be freestyle. Unfortunately, fish, which unfortunately cannot be emphasized enough, has become a precious ingredient that should be used as carefully as possible.