29 September 2010


Bouillabaisse is Marseille's signature dish. Calling it a fish soup doesn't do it justice. It is not eaten, it is celebrated, and yesterday I celebrated it at the Miramar at Marseille's Vieux Port, the old fishing harbor.

First, waiters come brandishing large silver trays, loaded with fish and langoustes (lobster) decorated like a work of art. They smile, maybe expecting applause, and then take it all away again and get to work on a large worktable in the middle of the restaurant, while we have our apéritifs and our entrées. As the word indicates, an entrée is an appetizer, only the Americans think it's the main dish. Speaking of the misuse of French words: maître d' means "master of" and will leave your French friends waiting - maître de quoi? Master of what?

Anyway, when the bouillabaisse is finally ready, you'll get a bowl of reddish-brown broth, with a plate of croutons and a surprisingly spicy tomato paste. (Surprising because the French don't like hot food, waiters normally ask for confirmation with worried looks on their faces if you ask for spicy food, which then turns out to be very mild.) Croutons are thin slices of white bread fried in oil until they become dark and very dry and crisp. They have nothing to do with the small yellow bricks they sprinkle over Cesar's salads in less enlightened countries.

The soup is delicious. The taste of fish is strong but very smooth, not at all "fishy", although it is difficult to identify all the kinds of fish and shellfish that went into it. It's also strongly seasoned with herbs and spices, making it very savory without overpowering the fish flavors. It's quite filling, and when I had finished my bowl I was getting ready for the desserts.

But that was just the first course. After the dishes were cleared away, I got another bowl of bouillabaisse, only this time it was filled with several different kinds of fish filets, two large lobster tails, and a red crab perched on top looking at me accusingly. I got a fresh spoon but this time nobody ate the soup, just the meat. Which can be a challenge: you need to separate the meat from the bones and skin, but every time you apply the knife the piece submerges and you can't see it anymore. You need to plan your surgical maneuvers ahead and then execute them blind. In the end, only the crab survived the massacre, it's there for decoration only.

At this point everybody was close to bursting, and the conversation turned to the restaurant scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life. If you aren't getting the reference, prepare some wafer-thin mints and watch the movie now. We also understood why, quite contrary to normal practice, we were asked to place our dessert orders before the meal, because after a bouillabaisse nobody really has space for a dessert. Professionals at work. After a suitable delay the chocolate variety plate was quite good though.

With all the appetizers and little side dishes and intermediate courses, the bill came to about a hundred euros; they boillabaisse alone is 58. Without drinks. The company was paying. The dinner lasted almost four hours - Bouillabaisse is a serious matter and not something for a quick bite during lunch hour (in France, lunch hour is actually an hour and a half). I expect that if you ask for a can or frozen box of bouillabaisse in a grocery store in Marseille, the authorities will have you deported to Romania instantly with their usual disregard for EU law and due process.

I didn't take a picture of the Bouillabaisse, that would have been crude. So I'll show a random Marseille harbor picture with fish in it.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not quite sure what you're trying to get at, in English speaking parts of the world "maître d’", is understood to mean 'maître d’hôtel', at least by the literate.

    Another thing I will point out, as I often have to with French hosts, is that most of the French derived words in the English language entered our language a thousand years ago, when the current and correct meanings and pronunciations were quite different from modern French. France itself did not exist in the modern sense either. Since then those words have taken a rather different evolutionary path than continental French, and in modern English these words are of course correct, just different. For instance the word 'bouillabaisse' itself originated from the Provençal Occitan word 'bolhabaissa', long before it was incorporated into modern, post-revolutionary, bourgeois French.

    I enjoyed the rest of your post; le bouillabaisse est une expérience profonde! What wine did they serve, by the way?