One of the world’s most revered culinary pilgrimages sees you walking around the port of Marseille in southern France looking for a soup made from ugly fish. And when I mean ugly, I mean the kind of pop-eyed, spiney, pot-lipped ugly that would make a mermaid shed her scales and send Neptune running from the ocean, retiring to a land-locked desert and never to be seen near a wave again.
Yup, being Marseille, this has got to be bouillabaisse we are talking about. Casually referred to as fish-soup. But to say that bouillabaisse is a soup is like calling Jámon Iberico Pada Negra a ham and introducing Champagne as wine with gas. Bouillabaisse is an icon of the seafood universe, and those in the know say the inhabitants of Marseille are the only species of humanity blessed with the correct DNA and knowledge of how to prepare and serve a true blue-blooded bouillabaisse.
This was experienced a few nights ago in said port of Marseille when our party of intrepid cook-book compilers were holed up in the city as a result of Covid-cancelled flights out of France. With Cape Town food-stylist and ultimate all-round foodie Abigail Donnelly in tow, the four of us headed to the port and to a place called Miramar which, word on the street has it, is bouillabaisse Nirvana.
Miramar is situated one bike-lane from the water’s edge, giving you a great view across the Vieux Port to Marseille’s own Notre Dame cathedral perched on a hill. The restaurant’s interior was obviously fitted by someone with a huge thing for the red part of the French flag. Smartly dressed waiters scuffled about donning cauldrons of soupy stuff as well as platters bearing mounds of fishes that were all of the eye-wateringly ugly variety mentioned aforehand.
Abigail, photographer Toby Murphy and myself ordered the bouillabaisse from an agreeable young waiter named Aladdin, while team-leader Monché Muller – head-chef at Pink Valley in Stellenbosch – settled for mussels of the marinière variety.
The back-story to bouillabaisse is that the dish was born centuries back – in Marseille – when fisherman kept the poorer quality fishes to themselves, selling-off the white flaky silver and more attractive stuff to the commercial buyers. With these inferior fishies they concocted a stewy-soupy thing that today goes by the name of the bouillabaisse.
Today this is not a poor dish – a portion, admittedly substantial – sets you back a grand (in rands) in person, and the theatre around serving it makes it an edible object of reverence. But all worth it, I might add.
The foundation of the bouillabaisse, as shown by Miramar which harps itself as all traditional, is a broth that looks like hazy sea-water dirtied by mega storm activity, smells like a North African spice market and tastes like the essence from all the world’s oceans. And it is all about the broth, this being made from small rock-fishes cooked and pulverised and strained with herbs, spices, Pernod and white wine to produce an intense, smooth soup.
To kick-off the bouillabaisse eating experience, one is given a large bowl of this broth. Next to which lie croutons, fresh garlic cloves and a mound of rouille. This rouille be a mayonnaise-like thing made with olive oil and hotted-up with paprika, pimento and saffron. Before digging in, you rub the crouton with the clove of garlic before ladling a thick layer of rouille onto the toasted, dry bread. Dump this into the soup, wait for it to soften and slurp.
Once slurped, there is no looking back. This is warm, nourishing and totally unctuous. It is like hoovering the ocean-floor with your mouth, all salt, sea and fishy; warm, satisfying and intensely delicious. The crouton adds crunch and body, while the decadent creaminess of the rouille gives a luxurious depth. We may look up to find it, but when tasting this kind of thing, heaven might just lie in the ocean.
For the main act, our waiter Aladdin appears with the platter of fish that have been poached in the very same broth that has seduced us in the run-up for what is to follow. The cooked fish are still whole, snarling, sneering and staring at us with beady dead eyes. Then they are taken to another table where the critters are deftly cut-up and the bones removed.
The second part of the show gives you poached morsels cut from the five different fishes, as well as peeled potatoes that were boiled in saffron-infused water. This mound of goodness is placed in your bowl and then once again drenched with the broth, which has by now reached legend status.
And this is it. Spoons of saucy, soupy fish and potato – a few small crabs, too – dripping that gorgeously crafted nectar of the ocean, known as the bouillabaisse broth. It all combines seamlessly, in harmony, in tune.
The diverse variety of fishes gives each morsel a different texture, most noticeably the fielas, which is an especially grotesque slivery, eel-like thing. Other fishes are more delicate, white and creamy but – very important – firm enough to hold the broth and thus not disintegrating to form a flaky, gruel-like fish mush that not even a street cat would partake of.
Saffron, fennel, dried orange-peel and cumin lift the dish, but never so that the sense of ocean and things maritime are lost. The food is as nourishing as it is flavoursome. All those different textures add to the heartiness of it all, making a bouillabaisse in Marseille a bucket-list item for anyone professing to have a liking for seafood. And of food and life as a whole.
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