First things first: The rather unwieldy and difficult-to-spell term for the classic French seafood dish bouillabaisse comes from two French words :bouillir (to boil) and abaisser (to reduce).
The term appeared in English writing as early as 1855 from no less than the novelist William Thackeray, best known as the author of Vanity Fair. He described it as a “hotchpotch of all sorts of fishes.”
Like lobster and caviar, bouillabaisse was once everyday, inexpensive fare. Traditionally, Provençal sailors would boil up a batch of soup for their families with scraps of fish from the day’s catch that they couldn’t sell, a mix featuring, perhaps, a bony red mullet.
But all that has changed. Now, gourmets endlessly debate which expensive spicy fish soups are entitled to the name bouillabaisse.
In the 1980s, a group of 11 Marseille restaurateurs created an official charter, specifying their rules.
Must your recipe include saffron and fennel? Yes. Can it call for white wine? No, according to Austin de Croze, a late Victorian food writer and member of the aforementioned Marseilles group, though you’ll see wine in many a recipe.
The origin of a luxury meal
The Greeks have a version called kakavia, which they may have brought north when they founded the port city of Marseilles, in 600 BC. In another origin story, the Roman goddess Venus sent her husband Vulcan the spicy brew to make him sleepy and free herself to frolic with her lover Mars.
However it came to Provence, the simple dish has now become quite elegant in restaurants along the French Riviera.
The recipe at one world-class Marseille restaurant, Le Miramar, includes saffron and fennel, along with parsley, potatoes, tomatoes, eel, and several kinds of fish — there must be at least four different species, according to the charter. Oh, and lobster is optional.
Rather than wine, chef and owner Christian Buffa uses the anise-flavored aperitif pastis and mineral water. (Some recipes use Pernod, another anise-flavored aperitif, instead.)
The soup broth, bright orange from saffron, appears alongside croutons dipped in a garlicky sauce called rouille. And as a second course, your waiter will present the various fish, and proceed to cut it up and put it in the soup.
Elsewhere, your second course might be the fish filets served separately with broth ladled over them.
Bouillabaisse recipes at home
The key to a beautiful bouillabaisse is a beautiful stock. One approach is to collect fish bones and build up your stock over time. Shrimp and lobster shells produce rich stock. Combine them with aromatics like thyme, celery, carrot, garlic, and peppercorns and simmer with water; cool, strain and freeze.
The ever-sensible celebrity chef Julia Child, in her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, adds orange zest but not wine or an aperitif to her bouillabaisse recipe. She granted her many devotees permission to use fish not native to the French Riviera.
You need “six or more varieties of fresh fish,” she said, “which is why a bouillabaisse is at its best when made for at least six people. Some of the fish should be firm-fleshed… like halibut, eel, and winter flounder and some tender and flaky like hake, baby cod, small pollock, and lemon sole.
“Shellfish are neither necessary nor particularly typical, but they always add glamor and color if you wish to include them.”
While the dish is definitely a project, it all comes together in one large stockpot. If you don’t have a good stock, consider making your bouillabaisse in a slow cooker, adding the fish, and shellfish if any, in the last half hour to avoid overcooking.
This dish doesn’t have to be as hard as it sounds, and one fragrant yellow spoonful will evoke the Mediterranean sun. If you veer from the official rules, you might regain French approval by playing Edith Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” as you serve your guests.