As many of you who read our blog know, Pierre is from Marseille and so we have always had a deep connection to that ancient port city. Originally founded in 600 BC by the Greeks, the city has a wild and varied history as an independent city-state, a Roman city, a naval port, and a cultural hub. One thing has remained the same throughout; its location on the Mediterranean Sea has made it a fine place for fish! And its pivotal role as an outsize fishing village has resulted in a very unique dish indeed.
Anyone who travels to Marseille will find themselves bombarded with gaudy references to the "authentic" dish of the city; Bouillabaisse. However most of the time the fare being offered is anything but authentic. This isn't for lack of trying though! The recipes for the dish have varied so widely over the years that finally, in 1980, a group of restaurateurs assembled to define the permissible ingredients and preparation methods to be considered truly bouillabaisse.
Like the recipe, the origin of the name has also been debated. Some call it a variation of an ancient dish that the Roman goddess Venus fed to her husband, Vulcan, to have a night alone with her beau, Mars. Others believe that it is a descendent of a simple Greek stew called kakavia. Either way, the stew is often associated with its use of common and readily available local fish. Typically fishmongers would return home after a day's work having unintentionally caught numerous less-than-desirable fish that would not likely sell at market. The solution was to sell what they could and to then use those more common fish in their own dinner at home.
Because we have traveled to Marseille so many times over the years, we've had many opportunities to sample different bouillabaisse recipes. Our favorite, by far, is in a small fishing village about 40 minutes south of the Marseille called Les Goudes. L’Esplaï du Grand Bar des Goudes is well-known for making some of the most authentic Bouillabaisse available and the view from the small dining room is hard to top! A roar of chatter greets you as locals and travellers are telling each other stories in anything but a whisper. Others will tell you, and we can confirm it, that it is best to make your reservations 48 hours in advance.
Traditionally, the chef will begin the service by presenting the cuts of fish that he intends to cook. In our case, an assortment of rockfish, Saint Pierre, rascasse, congre, and galinette were brought out to the table on a platter having already been marinated in a combination of white wine, olive oil, and choice spices, including saffron. The saffron gave our cuts of fish a noticeable yellow tint.
Next, the broth was brought to the table. It's a creamy stock of tomato, rockfish, fennel, spices, olive oil, and water. Along with the broth was a bowl of toasted bread slices, cloves of garlic, and a wonderful spicy mayonnaise called rouille. We set to spreading the garlic and rouille on our bread and letting them float in the broth while we awaited the fish and enjoyed Domaine du Paternel, a delicious white wine from the vineyards of Cassis.
One of the key characteristics of a properly-prepared bouillabaisse is that the fish are cooked à la minute, at the last minute, and then brought to the table immediately. We added our just-cooked fish to our broth and carried on the conversation!
While it is undoubtedly an acquired taste, the rich tastes of bouillabaisse and its equally rich history, make it a cultural dish that is sure to maintain its mystical and mythical hold over visitors to the famed French port city.