Provençal fish stew bouillabaisse is perhaps Marseille’s most famous creation. Despite its very humble beginnings, the dish has achieved a level of notoriety that is unusual, even for food-focused France. To call it it a generic fish stew would be sacrilège; to prepare it outside the South of France would be simply impossible. Every port-side restaurant in Marseille boasts it, and famous chef Gérald Passedat recently wowed the culinary community by proposing a new, dangerously contemporary version, ‘Ma Bouille Abaisse’, at his Michelin-starred restaurant Le Petit Nice, for €220 per person. Yet, while tourist demand for bouillabaisse is in no state of decline, certain locals and gastronomy specialists argue that a true, authentic version just doesn’t exist anymore. So what is real bouillabaisse, and can it still be found today?
a thorough investigation
2019 was announced as the year of ‘Marseille Provence Gastronomy‘, so if there was an appropriate time to investigate the question, it was now. Elaine Sciolino (veteran New York Times journalist), Sophie (cub reporter), Jean-Claude Ribaut (notable food critic at Le Monde newspaper for 20 years) and I (photographer) travelled to Marseille on our fishy quest. It is fortunate that I like seafood – specifically, the earthy, almost bitter taste of this gritty, soup-like, stew-like meal – and have no aversion to raw garlic (cloves are rubbed liberally onto croûtons under dollops of rouille, a spicy, garlicky mayonnaise, then dipped in broth to begin the dining experience) – because we got through quite a lot of both in the space of 48 hours.
sticking to the recipe
France is a land where regionalism and tradition are cherished, and many of France’s signature dishes are the subject of concerted efforts to retain authenticity. Soon after my arrival in the South of France years ago, I remember marvelling over the research and passion that had evidently been applied to a several-page magazine article detailing what a true salade niçoise consisted of (for anyone who cares, green beans and potatoes, for example, are definitely not on the list, not being native to Nice). Bouillabaisse is no exception to this – yet the specifics of its authenticity are apparently surprisingly hard for experts to agree on (the Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter is widely dismissed as a tourist gimmick). It seems part of the problem is that while some ingredients and cooking techniques are essential (Elaine explains in the final New York times article), others can change, according to the day’s catch, and the chef’s preference.
soup of the unwanted
Principally, bouillabaisse is made of certain varieties of rockfish, some of which are only found in the region. Rascasse (spiny scorpion fish) is the irreplaceable element of the authentic dish, and one of the uglier of a fairly ugly bunch of fish that wind up in the stew. Bouillabaisse certainly isn’t the most photogenic of dishes for a food photographer, either at raw ingredient stage or after cooking. Bulging eyes, whiskers, spines and brown skin seem to make up the key requirements for any creature worthy of inclusion, not to mention the conger eel, who isn’t likely to win any beauty contests.
Originally, the dish was a poor fisherman’s staple food, and only the most ugly, bitten or otherwise damaged small fish made it into the boiling cauldron. Bouillabaisse was basically a stew of unsold, unwanted market leftovers. Today, its status has been reversed: it is said that if you spend any less than 75€ on the menu, it is not a true bouillabaisse. The limited availability of certain fresh fish, together with the price of ingredients like saffron (in which the fish are traditionally marinaded, giving the stew its trademark yellow colour), means that today’s peasants (and certain freelance photographers) don’t normally get a chance to taste the real thing. Versions touted by restaurants around Le Vieux Port tend to contain turmeric instead of saffron, frozen and/or cheaper fish than the now-rarer rockfish, and imposter ingredients like mussels or prawns.
food photographer: a tough job
We certainly covered some ground in two days, and the car hired to get us from A to B did a sterling job, despite Ribaut’s compulsive mid-traffic stalling and kerb-humping habits. We went to the fish market in Le Vieux Port at the crack of dawn to talk to fishermen bringing in their catch from the previous night; we crossed the city and strode along the rocky coastline in our quest for ambiance, authenticity and this culinary holy grail; yet after considerable research to try to unearth a restaurant that had a veritable bouillabaisse, we were still confounded last minute by mussels on our plates.
In the end, it was not in Marseille itself, but in the tiny fishing village of Les Goudes, a 40 minute drive away, that at last we found what we were looking for. In an unpretentious busy bar on the port, amid the (considerable) noise of happy Marseillais singing and chatting, we were finally served what Jean-Claude pronounced to be a true bouillabaisse. Fresh rascasse, weever fish and conger (that had marinaded overnight in saffron); nothing extra; no frills…this bouillabaisse had it all, and it was truly delicious. At a table that overlooked fishing boats bobbing up and down under a clear blue sky, our meal experience was accompanied by a fine Mediterranean wine, Clairette les Athenors, and topped off by spectacular, giant profiteroles (a classic dessert choice in Marseille). Being a food photographer is a tough job sometimes.