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Bouillabaisse at the Source


Joe H
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Last week my wife and I did our best to eat our way through the French Riviera. Having made bouillibasse myself for almost fifteen years and being somewhat obsessed by it I spent a great deal of time doing research on where I would find the best. The result were restaurants in Mougins, Marseilles (L'Epuisette which Johnny Apple raved about) and L'Ane Rouge considered by some to be the best fish restaurant in Nice. We made reservations at L'Epuisette where it is their every day specialty and also at the similarly Michelin starred L'Ane Rouge where several days notice must be given.

I should note that when I make bouillibasse I use a two and a half pound rockfish and a two and a half pound red snapper for the fume after I first saute garlic, leek, fennel and onion in olive oil then adding the several pounds of fish heads and frame followed by white wine, a bouquet garni and water. The bouillibasse itself starts with leek, fennel and celery sauteed in olive oil and butter along with bay leaves, anise seed, saffron, garlic, tomato paste and white wine along with several cups of San Marzano tomatoes and the fish fumet. Mine is non traditional in that I add clams and mussels, then chunks of the fish followed by shrimp and scallops; finally, I add Pernod. I've made my own rouille as well as garlic bread. I say all this because I am quite proud of the "shellfish" bouillibasse I make and believe it is the equal of any I've had in the D. C. area. This includes Eve, Yannick Cam and a number of other restaurants.

L'Ane Rouge was far superior to any I have had here or anywhere else.

This was an almost four hour meal that cost E 70 each (US $105) and included twelve different fish including rascasse which, to the best of my knowledge is unavailable on this side of the Atlantic. Regardless L'Ane Rouge like Marseille's L'Epuisette owns their own fishing boat and uses that which they catch themselves.

The "traditional bouillibasse" (again this MUST be ordered several days in advance; while there several other tables saw what we were having and asked for the same dish only to be turned down) starts with the serving of three small bowls: one has the house made rouille which is a kind of garlic mayonnaise flavored with a tinge of cayenne, also a bowl of freshly grated Reggiano and a bowl of house made 1/4 inch thick croutons. This is followed by the presentation of a four quart copper pot almost filled with the broth. It is ladelled one spoonful at a time into each bowl. Two minutes after this exercise the server leaves having finished the spooning. The taste of this broth is unlike any I have ever had anywhere else: there is an earthiness to it and almost a light rust or bronze color. It is rich and creamy but not a thick consistency; rather much like velvet. But the flavor! The flavor!!! I am told it is because of the rascasse that the rustic note is introduced. This is not a one or two bite dish where each successive spoonful is downhill after the first. Rather, this starts strong and continues almost infusing a need to slurp every drop for fear of never tasting anything this good again!

But this is only the start.

They then bring out a wooden platter about 18" by 30" which is overloaded with twelve different fish in a huge pile spilling over the sides of the platter along with a mound of mussels in the middle. This is first presented at the table then four servers (not an exaggeration: four) stand aside the platter on a separate table, each fileting a fish. A square, shallow fourteen inch across white ceramic bowl has each filet placed on a side of it. Sliced potatoes which, I believe, were cooked in the broth, are layered in a mound in the middle of it followed by a small pile of really fat mussels on top. The copper pot is brought back out and, at the table, each bowl receives another five or six ladles of broth.

The procedure is to again sip the broth while also spooning or slicing into a filet. Croutons are slathered with rouille with Reggiano scattered on top; all of this is then dipped into the broth and then a bite is taken to compliment the fish. Meanwhile the wooden platter is taken back into the kitchen.

A half hour or so later when we finished the four fish, the potatoes and mussels the platter is brought back out and the procedure repeated with four more fish fileted and presented to us with more potatoes and broth ladelled on top. Forty five minutes after starting this we again finished and the platter was brought out one more time with several more fish and an eel or two.

The point is to taste each fish individually because there is a variance in taste and texture from one to another.

I can imagine that other restaurants (Mougins and L'Epuisette) are as good or almost as good but this was one of the most incredible feasts that I have ever had. Also a very real bargain-if you will-for the price we paid. Unfortunately, it's an experience that you cannot find in America-you have to experience this there. And not in Paris, either. I've had bouillibasse at Le Dome which is considered by most to be the best in that city. It doesn't even approach what you can have here let alone at L'Ane Rouge.

Remarkably, this was not the best meal of the trip. That would be a tie between L'Oasis outside of Cannes and in Theoule Sur Mer at the remarkable seaside L'Etoile des Mers who make a fantastic bourride. The two Michelin starred L'Oasis's website: http://www.oasis-raimbault.com/ But these are a topic for another time.

I've met far too many people who have gone to the French Riviera and returned having had bouillibasse that they were disappointed with. I was also told in Nice and Cannes that true "traditional bouillibasse" made properly has become a rare production and genuinely difficult to find even there. For anyone visiting the Cote d'Azur you should go out of your way to plan for this or the other restaurants. It really is "worth the journey."

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L'Ane Rouge was far superior to any I have had here or anywhere else.

Great post. For me it brings back distant memories. While I was living in Geneva in the late 70's, I finally made it to Marseilles and was determined to have bouillabaisse at the source. I chose a place that was Michelin starred and well-regarded at the time--I think it was called Old Port New York or something like that. My memory is dim, but I do recall fondly that the meal, tho not even remotely as elaborate as yours, was one of the best I ever had. Just goes to show that when it comes to a great regional dish it's hard to beat the locals at their own game.

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On this subject, Joe, bouillibasse is one of those dishes I've never tried, mostly for fear that what I'll be getting is some lame slapdash distant cousin of the good stuff, and I'd hate to sully my first taste with something that isn't worthwhile. It is, however, at or near the top of foods I'm dying to try and I'd love to find somplace that does a faithful and delicious -- if not quite so transcendent -- version. I'm sure there's nothing around here that approaches what you describe, but have you had anything in the area that you think is respectable? I see you list a few... do you have a favorite? Would you hesitate to send somebody there for a first try?

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This was an almost four hour meal that... included twelve different fish...
Holy Neptune’s trident!

There are quite a few varieties of bouillabaisse, “bouillabaise” being a general term from the provençal dialect of Occitan bolh (it boils) and abaissa (it reduces), and there is no official standard, though clearly Joe’s experience was exceptional refinement and adhered to traditional ingredients and the fabled adage that “one waits for bouillabaisse but bouillabaisse waits for no one.” What differentiates L’Ane Rouge’s bouillabaisses from clumsy fish stews are proper technique (rapid boil) and ingredients. Most important is that the traditional bouillabaisse is not a soup. Any liquid remaining is to be sopped up with the croutons. The salty Reggiano is an interesting garnish since cheese and fish don’t mix traditionally. Were there any marsh crabs?

It originated in Marseille and the addition of potatoes is distinctive to the version of Toulon (which is said to repulse fans from Marseille); the potatoes and tomatoes weren’t introduced until 2 millennia after its Greco-Roman inception. Maurice “Curnonsky” Edmond Sailland claimed that angels carried the first bouillabaisse from heaven to feed shipwrecked saints while others posit that Venus prepared the dish for her husband Vulcan, hoping it would knock him out so that she could flirt with Mars.

My grandfather spoke Occitan provençal and told me of a thriftier saffronless bouillabaisse “aigo-sau” (water-salt) which had fewer species of fish and there is even a bouillabaisse “borgne” (one eyed) egg-xample or “aigo sau l’ióu” (water-salt-egg), perhaps when fish was not within reach (no depth perception). In this country, more often than not, bouillabaisse is a saffron sea-broth soup with turmeric tinted potatoes, fennel flavorings and an indiscriminate swath from the Mayflower Hotel’s seafood buffet -which isn’t to say that they are inherently bad- but probably fall under other regional bouillabaisse substitutes: “aziminu” in Corsica, “zarzuela” in Spain, “cacciucco” in Tuscany, “suquet de piex” in Catalonia or "flotsam & jetsam & shrimps" in Bridgeport, Conn.

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Holy Neptune’s trident!

There are quite a few varieties of bouillabaisse, “bouillabaise” being a general term from the provençal dialect of Occitan bolh (it boils) and abaissa (it reduces), and there is no official standard, though clearly Joe’s experience was exceptional refinement and adhered to traditional ingredients and the fabled adage that “one waits for bouillabaisse but bouillabaisse waits for no one.” What differentiates L’Ane Rouge’s bouillabaisses from clumsy fish stews are proper technique (rapid boil) and ingredients. Most important is that the traditional bouillabaisse is not a soup. Any liquid remaining is to be sopped up with the croutons. The salty Reggiano is an interesting garnish since cheese and fish don’t mix traditionally. Were there any marsh crabs?

It originated in Marseille and the addition of potatoes is distinctive to the version of Toulon (which is said to repulse fans from Marseille); the potatoes and tomatoes weren’t introduced until 2 millennia after its Greco-Roman inception. Maurice “Curnonsky” Edmond Sailland claimed that angels carried the first bouillabaisse from heaven to feed shipwrecked saints while others posit that Venus prepared the dish for her husband Vulcan, hoping it would knock him out so that she could flirt with Mars.

My grandfather spoke Occitan provençal and told me of a thriftier saffronless bouillabaisse “aigo-sau” (water-salt) which had fewer species of fish and there is even a bouillabaisse “borgne” (one eyed) egg-xample or “aigo sau l’ióu” (water-salt-egg), perhaps when fish was not within reach (no depth perception). In this country, more often than not, bouillabaisse is a saffron sea-broth soup with turmeric tinted potatoes, fennel flavorings and an indiscriminate swath from the Mayflower Hotel’s seafood buffet -which isn’t to say that they are inherently bad- but probably fall under other regional bouillabaisse substitutes: “aziminu” in Corsica, “zarzuela” in Spain, “cacciucco” in Tuscany, “suquet de piex” in Catalonia or "flotsam & jetsam & shrimps" in Bridgeport, Conn.

who let this guy be a member?

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On this subject, Joe, bouillibasse is one of those dishes I've never tried, mostly for fear that what I'll be getting is some lame slapdash distant cousin of the good stuff, and I'd hate to sully my first taste with something that isn't worthwhile. It is, however, at or near the top of foods I'm dying to try and I'd love to find somplace that does a faithful and delicious -- if not quite so transcendent -- version. I'm sure there's nothing around here that approaches what you describe, but have you had anything in the area that you think is respectable? I see you list a few... do you have a favorite? Would you hesitate to send somebody there for a first try?

Eve is the local best followed closely by Yannick Cam at Le Paradou where it is a special order. Please bear in mind that this has been a decade + obsession of mine based on first having Yannick Cam's, later Eve's along with my own which I've made 20 or 30 different ways over the years. All this without ever going to the French Riviera. Having had the sensational experience at L'Ane Rouge and an incredible bourride at L'Etoile des Mers I am even more obsessed.

What you will NOT have here is the presentation which is show stopping. Two different tables asked to have bouillibasse while ours was being served. Told no, when they finished their respective meals they both made reservations to return several nights later and have it!

....I am making bouillibasse today with fumet that I made and froze a month ago.

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Holy Neptune’s trident!

There are quite a few varieties of bouillabaisse, “bouillabaise” being a general term from the provençal dialect of Occitan bolh (it boils) and abaissa (it reduces), and there is no official standard, though clearly Joe’s experience was exceptional refinement and adhered to traditional ingredients and the fabled adage that “one waits for bouillabaisse but bouillabaisse waits for no one.” What differentiates L’Ane Rouge’s bouillabaisses from clumsy fish stews are proper technique (rapid boil) and ingredients. Most important is that the traditional bouillabaisse is not a soup. Any liquid remaining is to be sopped up with the croutons. The salty Reggiano is an interesting garnish since cheese and fish don’t mix traditionally. Were there any marsh crabs?

It originated in Marseille and the addition of potatoes is distinctive to the version of Toulon (which is said to repulse fans from Marseille); the potatoes and tomatoes weren’t introduced until 2 millennia after its Greco-Roman inception. Maurice “Curnonsky” Edmond Sailland claimed that angels carried the first bouillabaisse from heaven to feed shipwrecked saints while others posit that Venus prepared the dish for her husband Vulcan, hoping it would knock him out so that she could flirt with Mars.

My grandfather spoke Occitan provençal and told me of a thriftier saffronless bouillabaisse “aigo-sau” (water-salt) which had fewer species of fish and there is even a bouillabaisse “borgne” (one eyed) egg-xample or “aigo sau l’ióu” (water-salt-egg), perhaps when fish was not within reach (no depth perception). In this country, more often than not, bouillabaisse is a saffron sea-broth soup with turmeric tinted potatoes, fennel flavorings and an indiscriminate swath from the Mayflower Hotel’s seafood buffet -which isn’t to say that they are inherently bad- but probably fall under other regional bouillabaisse substitutes: “aziminu” in Corsica, “zarzuela” in Spain, “cacciucco” in Tuscany, “suquet de piex” in Catalonia or "flotsam & jetsam & shrimps" in Bridgeport, Conn.

Really interesting post-thank you for sharing. I believe that you are totally right about the inclusion of the leftovers from a seafood buffet for many of the stews available here. I've long been a fan of different kinds of seafood stews. For the reason that I spent a lot of effort and time on researching bouillibasse I've done the same with other types of fish stews in Europe and elsewhere. Still, in part because of the presentation this was the best of any I've had although the intense flavor and satiny texture of the bourride were also superb.

Locally, Jeff Black has an interesting and very good variety of fish stews as does Kinkead where Jeff Black once oversaw his kitchen. In fact Kinkead occasionally makes what he calls "Portugeuse Seafood Stew" which, I think, may be the best and most time consuming seafood stew in our area. I've also made it from his cookbook but I must note that the cookbook recipe FAILS to note that you must cook the broth down to thicken it before serving it. I was actually foolish enough to make this one night when Jeff and Barbara Black came to our house for dinner. The flavor was perfect but it was thin. (They were still alive, though, after eating my cooking!) The next day, trying to ensure that I never made a mistake like this again, I found the correct recipe on the internet: http://starchefs.com/chefs/BKinkead/html/recipe_05.shtml Note that it says to cook it down by "a quarter." If anyone reading this makes it use the fish fumet I note above which must be made from scratch using several pounds of the heads and frame of several fish (i.e. red snapper, rockfish, etc. for mine).

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2 hours ago, Poivrot Farci said:

We had fried sugar toads at Eat the Rich.  The sugar toads and sea robins (gurnard family) are similar to monkfish in that they don't have much in the way of pin-bones or ribs, just a cartilage spine, but the sugar toads taste more like monkfish than the sea robins do. Sugar toads have endearing eyes and the sea robins make croaking/barking noises so I am content to let them go, but the latter is a delicious bouillabaisse staple. 

I had Bouillabaisse in Marseille last autumn (a claim of authenticity; not a gular sac puff), and to start the meal, we nibbled an order of pan-fried Scorpion Fish (Rascasse in French). I don't *think* these are Sugar Toads or Sea Robins, but I'm pretty sure they're close relatives. This is about as traditional a preparation as you'll ever see, and this was most likely in the sea that morning.

ScorpionFish.jpeg

On 2/1/2008 at 5:33 PM, Dmnkly said:

On this subject, Joe, bouillibasse is one of those dishes I've never tried, mostly for fear that what I'll be getting is some lame slapdash distant cousin of the good stuff, and I'd hate to sully my first taste with something that isn't worthwhile. It is, however, at or near the top of foods I'm dying to try and I'd love to find somplace that does a faithful and delicious -- if not quite so transcendent -- version. I'm sure there's nothing around here that approaches what you describe, but have you had anything in the area that you think is respectable? I see you list a few... do you have a favorite? Would you hesitate to send somebody there for a first try?

If anyone wants Bouillabaisse without going trans-Atlantic, think about heading to San Francisco for Cioppino. No, they're not the same, but a traditional, authentic Cioppino is worth the trip.

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