Originally a way of using up leftover seafood, the story behind this French classic is a rich (and saucy) one.
By
Gabriel Gaté

20 Jul 2017 - 11:55 AM  UPDATED 27 Jun 2018 - 2:40 PM

Every morning the old port of the Mediterranean city of Marseilles comes to life when the local fishermen arrive at the wharf in colourful little boats with their small catch of fish and seafood. Within an hour the wharf is transformed into a fabulous marketplace, renowned in the whole of France. It's a great spectacle that I have witnessed many times. The fresh fish jump about on the display tables and serious cooks come in numbers to buy their dinner.

Marseilles is famous for a unique, delicious seafood dish, called bouillabaisse. I would list this classic speciality as one of the ten most interesting French regional dishes. For the gourmet food lover this dish is on a par with cassoulet, choucroûte, blanquette de veau, pot au feu and a few others that comprise a good French repertoire for keen cooks.

The dish, now a French national gastronomic treasure, was created by fishermen who typically made it from left over small rockfish and shellfish they were unable to sell to the public or to restaurants.

Fish being sold in Marseilles, the birthplace of the bouillabaisse.

To make the soup flavoursome, the fish is cooked in olive oil with onions, fennel, garlic, tomato and a touch of saffron, all covered in sea water. Like all recipes, bouillabaisse has evolved over the years but it's worth a trip to Marseilles or the nearby seaside villages to taste it at a reliable restaurant. It's a meal rather than a dish, as it's traditionally served in two courses.

The first course comes as a thick, highly flavoured fish broth accompanied by croutons, which you rub with a garlic clove and spread with a red-coloured, spicy garlic mayonnaise, called a rouille.

The main course is a selection of fish that has been cooked in the broth and is served with boiled potatoes, more croutons with rouille and extra broth. Think of it as a rich feast.

Bouillabaisse became such a success with locals and visitors to Marseilles after the Second World War, that many restaurants served an inferior version which disappointed fish lovers. 

In 1980 in order to protect the reputation of their speciality, a group of a dozen serious local restaurateurs wrote a charter giving guidelines as to how a bouillabaisse should be made and what it should include. Nowadays this charter has been embraced by many others. The charter encourages creativity but states that the soup should include olive oil, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, fennel, parsley, herbs, garlic and saffron. 

There must be at least four types of fish included, such as John Dory, monkfish, red mullet as well as conger eel, scorpion fish and spider crab.

While recording Taste Le Tour with Gabriel Gaté for the Marseilles episode, I enjoyed an outstanding bouillabaisse in the centre of the port on the outdoor terrace of the Le Miramar restaurant with a superb view of Marseilles and the fishing boats. The restaurant pays tribute with a chart that respects the traditions and flavours of what a true bouillabaisse should be.

Gabriel Gaté at La Miramar restaurant in Marseille, France

The Miramar serves five different types of quality firm fish, and the broth is flavoured with Pastis, the delicious anise drink famous in Provence. The cooked fish is first presented to the table before a skillful waiter removes the bones and fillets the fish infront of us for us to enjoy.

As a bonus, Marseilles, the capital of Provence, produces beautiful rosé wines which match the bouillabaisse perfectly. There are certainly worse places to enjoy a Provençale lunch. 

 

Taste le Tour with Gabriel Gaté airs every night from Saturday 7 July and finishes Sunday 29 July 2018. Visit the Taste le Tour website to catch-up on episodes online, scroll through recipes or find out more about the show. 

Make your own
Bouillabaisse

This warming soup is traditional stew from Marseille, France’s largest city on the Mediterranean coast, by the fisherman who wanted to cook the fish they couldn’t sell at the markets. Traditionally made with bony rockfish, it's the kind of dish you can add whatever fresh seafood you manage to bring home from the ocean.

Traditional Marseille bouillabaisse (bouillabaisse)

Marseille is the home of bouillabaisse, where it was originally cooked by local fishermen as a simple, filling meal. It should include a variety of fish, including scorpion fish, to be truly authentic.