The Hunt for Bouillabaisse in Marseille

When in the Port city, savour what the French do - fish soup for the soul.  
Old Port, Marseille
The smell of the sea, the sound of screeching gulls and the sight of locals bargaining with fishermen make a visit to the Old Port worth it. Photo by Laborant/Shutterstock.

In little more than the three decades of my unremarkable albeit fast-changing life, eating fish has been a constant. I have licked the tender Hilsa’s thick mustard gravy off my fingers at home and at celebrations. I have savoured the rich, creamy sauce of a baked salmon, seeking comfort on a dank European winter afternoon in a land far from home. That’s just how much I love fish. So, on our visit to the French port city of Marseille, it was obvious for my spouse and I, a pair of Bengalis raised on a healthy diet of fish, to go hunting for the famous Provençal fish soup—bouillabaisse (pronounced: booyahbase). As a precursor to settling to a lunch of this traditional multi-fish broth, we decided to start our day with a visit to the fish market at the Old Vieux Port, along the Mediterranean coast.

To get there, we picked our way through the quiet, gritty Marseille streets that looked somewhat like a grand-mère (grandmother) dressed in sequins. This, mainly because of the newly installed sleek tram network zigzagging through Marseille’s arterial roads. The transport network’s revamp was undertaken to celebrate the city’s inclusion in the European cultural landscape. In 2013, Marseille was recognised as the European Capital of Culture along with Košice, Slovakia. It’s safe to say that Marseille is not Paris. But it does serve as France’s primary port, which opened up to the Mediterranean almost 2,600 years ago with the arrival of the Greeks. Eventually, Algerian, Corsican, Moroccan and Italian communities settled here, creating a melting pot of sorts. And the flavours of this bubbling pot are more evident in the Massalia kitchens than on its streets.

 

Off the hook

Fish in Old Vieux Port

Most fish varieties that go in the soup can be found at the bustling Old Vieux Port. Scooped out of the blue waters, they pack a punch.
Photo by Sylvain Grandadam/Dinodia Picture Library.

The sea rushes into the heart of the city at the Old Vieux Port.Here, each day begins with the seafarers selling their freshest catch. Take one look at the motley collection and you can tell they were scooped out of the blue waters less than an hour ago. The air is heavy with the smell of sea, the sound of screeching gulls and the fishwives’ boisterous calls. Brimming with enthusiasm, they are eager to sell. And locals are eager to buy, but not without a bargain. They haggle over a variety of sea bass, sea bream, dorade royale, and the hideous monkfish and crayfish. Simultaneously, they also exchange notes on the best way to prepare their purchase in their kitchens.

Given that the French spend as much time eating as they devote to cooking—two hours per activity to be precise, especially on weekends and holidays—it’s unsurprising to see them indulge at the port. As tourists, we tried to fit in by whetting our appetite for the bouillabaisse. It’s a must-try, we were told, for an authentic Marseille experience. But the recommendation came with a warning. The dish must only be tried at specific local joints. Chances of disappointment and neglect run high at restaurants that don’t specialise in it, we were told. We therefore booked ourselves a table at Chez Madie’s for a presumably happy meal.

 

The soup story

The origin of the bouillabaisse is linked to bands of tired and hungry fishermen returning from sea with two immediate needs—satiate a ravenous appetite and utilise the catch they were unable to sell. This, of course, was centuries ago. To accomplish both tasks with minimal effort, the men most likely built a fire on the beach and boiled the useless batch in seawater in a cauldron to enjoy a hearty, communal meal. Despite its humble beginnings though, the bouillabaisse has evolved to become a specialty and a mainstay on the Marseille food map.

Bouillabaisse stamp

Bouillabaisse is so popular that it has literally left a stamp on Marseille’s food map. Photo by Neftali/India Picture.

The transformation of this ordinary soup into gourmet fare began in the 19th century. With flourishing trade and prosperity, restaurants began serving it to wealthy patrons passing through the city. The simple recipe, so far used by fishwives for making the unpretentious soup, was therefore refined over the years. Fresh fish stock replaced boiled seawater. Exotic and expensive ingredients such as saffron got tossed in. Gradually, this fisherman’s staple spread beyond Marseille. Today, versions of the bouillabaisse are found in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy. Although it has adapted local flavours and ingredients along the way, what makes the bouillabaisse exclusive is the use of Provençal herbs and spices.

The luscious flavours are imbibed from onions, garlic, tomatoes, parsley, leeks, orange peel, basil, thyme, bay leaves and potatoes. Wild fennel and saffron are thrown in at the end. The Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise—a 1980 charter compiled by some chefs to preserve the dish’s quality by standardising ingredients—lists a variety of fish that must be included for the dish to be considered authentic. According to the charter, bouillabaisse must include at least four of the following fish—scorpionfish (rascasse), red scorpion fish (chapon or scorpène), weever (vive), spider crab (araignée), red mullet, and conger eel (congre). No self-respecting restaurateur in Marseille, they say, would serve the soup without at least four of these fish.

 

Bowled over

Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse, a multi-fish broth. Photo by Foxys_Forest_Manufacture/iStock.

At lunch, we finally relish the much-touted bouillabaisse. The sun-tinged soup brims with the rustic, languid Provençal flavours. It is served in two steps. First, the soup bowls are brought to the table to be enjoyed with rouille-dabbed crunchy garlic toasts. Once we’re through, the cheery waiter brings us a fish platter comprising rascasse, red mullet, conger and chapon and potato, ladled in the rich, warm stock exploding with punch.

The meal is more than a stomachful. We are forced to take breaks. It’s then that I can’t help but draw parallels between the golden broth and the indispensable machher jhol (a traditional Bengali fish stew). The French staple, I conclude, would pair exceedingly well with steaming rice. And with that comforting thought, I nestle in the contentment the bouillabaisse brings.

FIVE FOODS TO EAT IN MARSEILLE

1. Finding good bouillabaisse in Marseille can be a tricky affair given the complexity of preparation, and the quality of fish required. The soup is available as a lunchtime staple at most touristy restaurants for €20/`1,440—simply avoid. The gourmet Michelin-star version can be extravagant at €160/`11,545 per person. Chez Madie les Galinettes offers a good bargain at €45/`3,250, with fresh fish, friendly service and lively atmosphere overlooking the Mediterranean. (138 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille; +33-4-91908677; book in advance.)

pastis

Pastis. Photo by Deleu/Dinodia Picture Library.

2. Stop for fresh mussels, oysters and peculiar local specialties such as sea anemones and oursins (sea urchins) at La Boîte à Sardine. This poissonnerie marseillaise (French for fishmongers) also doubles as a restaurant with a dozen odd tables booked out every day of the week. This zesty place doesn’t have a set menu. What is available at sea determines what you eat. From juicy lobsters to scallop carpaccio, this genial restaurant is a fish lover’s paradise if you’re not too fussy. (2 Boulevard de la Liberation, 13001 Marseille; +33-4-91509595; main course from €35/`2,525 per person.)

3. In case you get tired of the panoply of seafood all around you and fancy a break, try the pizza at Chez Étienne. Authentic, local stuff served warm and fresh. They deal in cash only. (43 Rue Lorette, 13002 Marseille; +33-4-91547633; pizza at €13-15/`940-1,085, mains from €15-25/`1,085-1,800.)

4. Make time for the Provençal speciality aïoli. Often mistaken for flavoured mayonnaise, aïoli is made from a heady mix of garlic, lemon juice, eggs and olive oil. It is served on a platter of cod and vegetables. The dish is mostly served on Fridays. (Au Cœur du Panier, 18 Rue du Panier, 13002 Marseille; +33-4-91916580; €15-35/`1,085-2,525.)

5. The locally available pastis, a sweet, complex, herbal liqueur is to France, and in particular to Marseille, what the aperitif is to Italy. Commercialised first in 1932, the anise-flavoured drink succeeded the then banned absinthe. There’s a wide variety of pastis available at most supermarkets. However, if you’re keen on learning the origins and intricacies of drinking the pastis, drop in at La Maison du Pastis on the Vieux Port. (108 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille.)

  • Debashree Majumdar is a failed skier and enthusiastic hiker. When travelling, she seeks out the hum of old neighbourhoods and the noise of bazaars. She is a freelance writer-editor and currently lives in Geneva.

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