Sensation from the sea

Bouillabaisse is meant to be savored and shared

October 19, 2005|By STEPHEN G. HENDERSON | STEPHEN G. HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MARSEILLE, FRANCE — Marseille, France-- --Sunsets occur deliciously late at the Provencal seaside.

A few weeks ago, after I had relaxed all day by the pool at Sofitel Palm Beach, a swank hotel with an excellent restaurant facing the Mediterranean Sea, the sky was still light when I finally sat down to dinner at 10 p.m.

Hardly glancing at the menu, I ordered bouillabaisse, a dish indigenous to this brawny, briny city that combines seafood with onions, fennel, tomatoes, white wine, olive oil, saffron and herbs.

FOR THE RECORD - In Wednesday's Taste section, the name of the author of A Book of Mediterranean Food was misspelled. The author's name is Elizabeth David.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Because the fish is quickly poached in a fragrant stock called a fumet, bouillabaisse has a scent that's fresh, robust and maddeningly appetizing. Waiting for my soup to arrive, the odors wafting by as fragrant bowls were delivered to other diners, was an exquisite torture.

When I later tried cooking this recipe at home, I was amused to see it had a similarly debilitating effect on others. My guests couldn't manage to stay in the living room where a fire was lit, and drinks and hors d'oeuvres were arranged. Instead, they kept following their noses into the kitchen, begging to know what I'd made for dinner.

"Bouillabaisse," I replied, pronouncing it as they do in Marseille: BWEE-ya-bess.

France's second largest, and oldest, city, Marseille has a history that goes back well over two millenniums, when an army of Phoenician Greeks sailed into this natural harbor in 600 B.C.

It's sometimes called the least French city in France. Locals don't have much interest in the haute cuisine of Paris (though, thanks to TGV, a new, high-speed train, it is only three hours away), and Parisians return the favor by snubbing the culinary taste of this maritime metropolis.

So, if bouillabaisse lacks the sophistication of other French delicacies such as croissants or souffles, it's because the palate of Marseille is very much centered on its Vieux Port (old harbor).

From this picturesque spot, you can catch a ferry to Ile d'If, a tiny island prison made famous by Alexandre Dumas in his novel The Count of Monte Cristo, and sleek yachts and sailboats rub up against fishing trawlers that head out daily well before dawn. By midmorning, they've returned and fishermen stand around gossiping and smoking stubby cigars while they hawk their catch.

You don't have to ask whether it's fresh. Huge tuna heads still drip blood; octopuses wriggle about like live spaghetti. Spread out on ice-filled trays is snapper, shark, monkfish, fluke, sea bream and conger eel.

Much of this bounty will be sold to restaurants that specialize in bouillabaisse, such as L'Epuisette, Chez Fonfon or Le Miramar -- establishments where, by the way, solo dining is discouraged because eating this dish is considered a group activity.

As Elisabeth David notes in her masterpiece, A Book of Mediterranean Food, "The serving of bouillabaisse as it is done in Marseille, under perfect conditions, requires at least seven or eight guests. The reason is this: As the preparation requires a large variety of so-called rockfish, it is well to make it as lavishly as possible."

Putting it together

Want to lavish this exquisite soup on your family and friends? Despite its having three separate components, the fumet (a fish-stock broth) and rouille (a garlicky, terra-cotta-colored mayonnaise that's served as a condiment) are quite easy to make and can be prepared well in advance of guests arriving. This leaves only a final poaching of seafood in the heated broth before you ladle it into bowls and serve.

Actually, the only slightly daunting aspect is assembling ingredients. You may want to visit a seafood shop, where there probably will be a fresher and wider selection than at the corner grocery. Choosing a place where whole fish are filleted is advisable, too, because it will be more likely to have the bones (or crab, shrimp or lobster shells) required for the fumet.

"With bouillabaisse, you are definitely talking about two things: the quality of the fish and the quality of the broth, or base. If you get those factors correct, it's there," said Brian Martin, chef at Kali's Court in Fells Point. "We cook the seafood to order at the very last minute."

"Just give the fish a quick swirl in the heated fumet, until it is cooked. You don't want the fish to taste washed out," agreed Michael Gettier, who serves bouillabaisse at Antrim 1844 in Taneytown. "Chefs in Marseille, of course, have things like fish heads, bones and tails lying around. I don't have access to all this, so I make my fumet with lobster and shrimp shells."

Though a true bouillabaisse doesn't include shellfish, it is such a forgiving recipe that it can be adapted to whatever fish is available. During several days of sampling, I encountered different versions where the broth was golden, red or brown in color, and alternately flavored with thyme, leeks, bay leaves and even orange peel. Chef Cindy Wolf likes to add a splash of Pernod, a licorice-flavored liqueur, to her recipe.

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