The eyes are the mirror of the soul and reflect everything that seems to be hidden; and like a mirror, they also reflect the person looking into them. – Paulo Coelho
No other dish in the world better captures the soul and spirit of a single region than bouillabaisse. The rich, often colorful history of Marseille floats sublimely with rascasse in its spicy golden hued broth. Some believe bouillabaisse got its start from the Greek mariners who founded Marseille as Massalia in 600 BC, while others claim its origins are strictly Italian because of a few shared ingredients. The absolute truth may be that no one can precisely pinpoint the exact single moment in time, whether on that fabled riverbed encampment of fishermen and their wives or not, that bouillabaisse was born. What really would be the point of trying to figure that out anyway? It won’t make it taste any better, and it certainly won’t change the fact that bouillabaisse is the mirror reflection of the cultural melting pot Marseille has become. And the deeper I look into it, the more I see my own story reflected in it.
On the other hand, the most distinguishing characteristic of a bouillabaisse is not the fish, because all fish stews and soups have fish, but the unique flavoring derived from saffron, fennel seeds, and orange zest. A famous Provençal food writer, Jean-Noël Escudier, called bouillabaisse the “magical synthesis.” Another famous French epicure, Curnonsky, called it soupe d’or, soup of gold. The origin of the word bouillabaisse has been attributed to the abbess of a Marseilles convent (a pun on bouille-abbesse, the abbess’ boil?) and, most credibly, to bouillon abaissé “to reduce by evaporation.” – Clifford Wright
Some maintain bouillabaisse never really was a poor fisherman’s soup, that it always was made for the rich. The evidence they offer is, “look at how expensive spices like saffron are, and my god, the cost of a single bowl.” It’s hard to argue with that logic: to order a bowl of bouillabaisse in Marseille it will set you back at least 60 euros per person. The portions are huge and never ending, at least I’ve never been able to eat as much as I was offered. I have friends who make a complete meal for their entire family on one single bowl. In this sense, it misses an important point, people from Marseille have the notorious reputation of being blagueur, or exaggerators. Author Peter Mayle describes in ‘Toujours Provence’, how a Marseillais will call a sardine a whale, or when that fails, opinion quickly turns into fact. “Nobody around the table knew exactly how the first glass of pastis had come into the thirsty world, but lack of precise knowledge never inhibits a Provencal from expressing an opinion as fact, or a legend as reliable history. The least plausible, and therefore favorite, explanation was the hermit theory – hermits, of course, being almost up to monk standard when it comes to the invention of unusual aperitifs.” I think bouillabaisse became the gargantuan Provencal meal from some fine boasting of how much fish soup one could possibly eat after several rounds of Provencal milk, pastis.
There are two or three great restaurants to find authentic bouillabaisse in Marseille: l’Épuisette, Chez Fonfon and possibly Miramar, though the last time I ate there it was not as good as my first visit many years before. Sure, many others serve it. Gérald Passédat for example, makes a deconstructed version I keenly want to try, others make versions that are too touristy and have lost their soul amidst the fluttering of euros.
Like all bouillabaisse, Chez Fonfon’s varies according to the catch of the day, or, as the fishmongers are fond of saying, ”whatever happened to wander into the net” that morning. On a recent visit, this included monkfish, scorpion fish, John Dory and conger eel, all served on long, narrow platters. The strained fish soup is served first, along with toasted croutons and two garlic-infused sauces, aioli and rouille. Aioli, a golden, pungent puree of garlic cloves, mixed with sea salt, egg yolks and extra virgin olive oil, is dropped by the spoonful into the steaming broth. Or you might choose the russet-hued rouille, which is generally made by adding saffron and hot red pepper to the aioli, though other versions are mixtures of softened bread, garlic, a touch of mashed potatoes, broth, oil and peppers. The trick here is to use the powerful aioli and rouille with discretion or you’ll never make it to the second course: portions of fish and shellfish, boiled potatoes and additional broth. – Patricia Wells
Fish soups may not be unique to Marseille, or even Southern France; shit, every seaside culture worldwide has their own variation of a fish soup. What separates bouillabaisse is the Marseille larger than life character of it; bold, spicy, a natural born raconteur – and it tastes great. If you feel like braving to make your own bouillabaisse at home try my recipe, otherwise fly to Marseille and give Chez Fonfon a try!