Fall had started in earnest; a cool, light mist was falling. My wife Lisa and I decided to take our dog for a long walk foraging wild cèpes (porcini). I built a roaring fire in our small wood stove, placed a daube of beef on top to braise slowly, then walked out into the dank Mendocino woods….
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.
Today, the musts and must nots of preparing bouillabaisse are so numerous and so contradictory that one should be prepared to break rules at will. — Richard Olney
The Musts and Must-Nots
Bouillabaisse is perhaps the most bastardized dish that was ever created and as a classicist, that truly bothers me. In its strictest form, bouillabaisse is an assertive flavored, richly textured saffron seafood stew made from a specific list of Mediterranean fish that is always served in two courses. The worst case gives us a barely flavored, thin broth speckled with too many vegetables that some old seafood has been laid to rest in.
Somewhere in between lies bouillabaisse’s true soul, and sadly that has been forgotten, or worse yet, lost.
Have a glass of Pastis, watch a Marcel Pagnol movie or look at Paul Cezanne’s paintings and get yourself into the mood. Today is all about Marseilles and real Bouillabaisse. We had a passionate discussion over dinner, and I am still convinced there is no other city in the world that argues more about its specialty than Marseilles. Sure, New Yorkers think those crappy pizzas that are synonymous with their city are good (what else would a Chicago boy say?) and are vocal about it. Chicagoans are fervent of their beautiful deep dish pizzas. But the level of enthusiasm pales in comparison to that of Bouillabaisse. In Marseilles, family members cease to be family members, neighbors’ houses razed while they are on vacation and gardens gnomes gone swimming with the fish Godfather style over the correct Bouillabaisse fish. Marseilles even has a charter that TELLS you, rather than guide you as to which fish may swim into the Bouillabaisse and which cannot.
We started the day early with croissant and pain au chocolat from a Boulangerie in Cheval Blanc then braced ourselves for an exhilarating ride through Marseilles morning traffic. A few times I was obligated to play chicken with a Gauloise smoking truck driver as we fought for lane domination. If you ever find yourself lacking colorful adjectives for that play you are writing just take a ride through Marseilles rush hour. We finally docked the Renault near the Vieux Port and took to the streets by foot.
The first stop was a store that specializes in all things Provence. I am always nervous when Lisa goes in here. It is much like when I slip into a bookstore and come out 16 cookbooks fatter trying to pretend like nothing happened. Lisa bought several gifts for family and friends back home.
For the next few hours we wondered thru the streets of Old Marseilles dodging dog turds, photographing cool looking doorways and drinking Pastis. One has to work up an appetite for Bouillabaisse. Marseilles is the second largest city in France and the largest port in Europe. The earliest human evidence, dating back 30,000 years, have been found in the underwater caves near Cosquer and depict two Frenchmen fighting over what are the correct bouillabaisse fish. Marseilles was founded in 600 BC by Greeks from Phocaea as a trading port under the name Massalia. It transferred to Roman control, was conquered by the Moors and now us. The streets are so narrow and small that you are amazed your car fits let alone the one racing towards you at a cool 137 kilometers per hour.
Simone looking at Beau like he is nuts
for suggesting that shellfish are part of a true bouillabaisse
After a delicious pastis in old Marseilles we returned to our cars and drove to l’Epuisette for an epic lunch. L’Epuisette is somewhere you should go to at least ten times before you die. The bouillabaisse needs to be ordered 24 hours earlier.
I present our epic meal at l’Epuisette in pictures as words will fail to adequately describe it.
Auguste, my cousin Catherine and Roland’s amazing child, gave Beaumont Sophie le Giraffe
Amuse Bouche number one: three mousses Bouillabaisse, Asparagus and Mushroom
Amuse Bouche number Two Scallop larded with Bacon in a Cream Sauce
Aioli, Gruyere and Rouille With Garlic Crouton for the first course
Bouillabaise: an Act in two courses Bouillabaisse is ALWAYS served in two courses. First the broth the whole fish were cooked in is served with croutons smeared with rouille and covered in gruyere.
The broth is wonderful and perfumed with pastis, saffron and garlic.
After first and possibly second helpings of broth are served the whole fish are presented as to show ‘Mais Oui, we know the correct fish’
The congel eels, chapon, grendin, rascasse and st. pierre are lined up fileted on your plate waiting a few ladle fulls of broth to be spooned over
Note the correct silver utensils for eating fish. Every piece of silverware is correctly sized and fitted for proper surgery on the course in front of you. I would have licked my plate but people were watching.
Bouillabaisse is a religion. After decades of street battles and disappeared garden gnomes the Chefs of Marseilles created the Bouillabaisse Charter of 1980 to codify the ingredients and still the guns of war. 11 restaurants signed on and the war rages.
The Best Cheese I have ever Eaten, bar none The cheeses were served with an unbelievable fig bread
Following desserts was trio of mignardises Lemon Tart, Raspberry Macaroons & Chocolate Bombes
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
― Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
The French have the good sense NOT to serve coffee till you are finished with your sweets. I never understood why someone would want to hide the flavors of an apple tart with the overpowering flavors of coffee. If you think about it, it simply makes no sense. A good meal is to be lingered over and enjoyed. No rushed and hurried experience that promotes indigestion.
Servers won’t even bring your bill till you ask for it. I have gotten into so many arguments over the years about the French relationship to eating versus the American. Maybe like an infant, we are just a young nation and haven’t learned proper conduct at the table.
Outsanding View from the Dining Room
Beaumont and Auguste play on the glass floor in the dining room Ocean waves crashed below creating an unparalleled experience
The three cousins! Catherine, Francois et Andre avec Auguste