In Search of the Real Bouillabaisse, Marseille’s Gift to the Fish Lover

MARSEILLE, France — In this historical port metropolis on the Mediterranean, there is no such thing as a escaping the darkish, sizzling, earthy fish concoction often called bouillabaisse.

All round the Vieux Port, eating places with multilingual menus lure vacationers with the promise of an genuine style of the metropolis’s signature dish. One advertises in brilliant white lights a “bouillabaisse royale” with lobster on the facet; one other contains a “petite” bouillabaisse at a cut price value. A 3rd has created a “milkshake of bouillabaisse,” whereas yet one more proposes a “bouillabaisse hamburger,” a fish fillet in a bun accompanied by fish soup and French fries.

Newsstands promote postcards bearing a recipe for bouillabaisse in French and English. Shops supply jars of concentrated bouillabaisse inventory and ready rouille, a pointy, garlicky mayonnaise with olive oil and a mix of saffron and different spices that’s used to enliven the bouillabaisse broth.

In fact, few native Marseillaises eat bouillabaisse, and positively solely at house, by no means in a restaurant. Many snicker at those that come right here and need the dish. The most creative delicacies in the metropolis today, they are saying, is the pizza ready on meals vans and the couscous served in North African eating places.

Bouillabaisse typically appears as old school as coq au vin or blanquette de veau. Here, and throughout France, it’s typically mentioned you may now not discover a basic rendition of the dish, which is one thing between a soup and a stew.

Yet there may be additionally a rumor that bouillabaisse survives, particularly on this metropolis, which is celebrating its meals this yr with an initiative referred to as Marseille Provence Gastronomy 2019 that features cooking classes, dinner live shows, wine-tastings, artwork displays and markets. To mark the event, a bunch of elementary-school college students painted two massive out of doors “bouillabaisse” murals that includes the rockfish mandatory for the dish.

So once I determined to search out and style the actual factor, I got here to Marseille.

The search wasn’t straightforward, as bouillabaisse is steeped in myths, custom and gastronomic polemics.

The origin of the dish is the stuff of legends. One has it that Venus, the Roman goddess of love, invented bouillabaisse to put her husband, Vulcan, to sleep so she might be along with her paramour Mars. Many meals historians speculate that bouillabaisse is a descendant of kakavia, a conventional soup of the historical Greeks, who colonized Marseille in about 600 B.C.

It developed over the centuries as a one-pot meal through which poor fishermen threw rockfish — a number of species of sea creatures, most of them ugly and at one time unsellable — contemporary off the docks into a big iron caldron of boiling fish inventory to feed the household. By the late 18th century, a model was served in eating places.

In 1966, the New York Times meals critic Craig Claiborne called bouillabaisse “a dish that is always good for controversy.” The debate over what constitutes a real bouillabaisse grew so fierce that a group of 11 local restaurateurs drew up the Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter in the 1980s, codifying the ingredients and preparation allowed.

Even now, there is no official governmental protection for the name bouillabaisse as there is for so many other French comestibles, from Champagne to Brie de Meaux.

Then there is downright trickery. Several years ago, an investigation by a French television channel revealed that many of the restaurants around the Vieux Port used processed ingredients and frozen fish of indeterminate origin.

On this visit, I stayed far away from the port area, where I had eaten my first, mediocre bouillabaisse years ago.

I also avoided the deconstructed, dressed-up and expensive interpretation at Gérald Passédat’s Michelin-starred restaurant Le Petit Nice, on the scraggly shoreline about two miles away. My Bouille Abaisse, as he calls it, consists of three courses: a raw shellfish starter, a selection of classic bite-size fish fillets covered in a light saffron-infused broth, and finally, a selection of deep-sea fish in a thick soup adorned with small crabs. With dessert, the price tag for the meal comes to 250 euros, about $280.

Marseille is a sprawling city that includes 111 neighborhoods called quartiers-villages, and I headed to one of them, the vacation spot Carry-le-Rouet, 20 miles northwest of the Vieux Port, to try what is reputed to be one of the best traditional versions in town.

Bouillabaisse was never meant to be served in restaurants on demand; the dish is too expensive and difficult to make for a restaurant to gamble on the chance that a customer might want it.

So I ordered it two days in advance from a popular restaurant. The setting was picture-perfect, an open-air balcony overlooking a small port full of pleasure boats. But the meal was disappointing — the broth was a pretty shade of orange, but tepid and too tomatoey. Its side dish of half a chewy lobster was certainly not authentic.

Success came when I turned to a friend who knows the area. Friends of his who live along the coast suggested another restaurant, and spoke to the chef, who only occasionally makes bouillabaisse but agreed to prepare it for us.

On a hot Sunday in June, I drove 40 minutes east along the coastal road to the small fishing hamlet Les Goudes, the farthest point in Marseille before you hit the hidden inlets known as calanques. There is no post office or bank, and the tiny Roman Catholic church is seldom open for services.

Clusters of small cottages, some of them no more than shacks, cling to the hillsides. Some were built in the days before building codes, and function with exposed electrical wiring. Many of the families who live here go back generations.

The chef, Christophe Thullier, prepared his bouillabaisse the classic way. He made a stock using tiny scaled and gutted rockfish, fennel, tomatoes, a mixture of spices, olive oil and water. He boiled the stock furiously for 20 minutes until it thickened, then turned it down to a simmer before straining in a sieve.

At least five types of whole rockfish had marinated for several hours in white wine, olive oil, thyme, rosemary, saffron, paprika, turmeric and lots of garlic and saffron.

Part of the ritual of bouillabaisse is the presentation of the marinated fish before they are filleted and thrown into the simmering broth “à la minute” — at the last minute. The word bouillabaisse derives from the Provençal bouï-abaisso, meaning “when the pot boils, lower the fire.”

Eric Para, the restaurant’s co-owner, brought a huge platter of fish to the table, including Saint Pierre (John Dory); vive (weever), a small eel-like creature with poisonous spines; galinette (gurnard); grondin rouge (red gurnard); congre (conger eel); rouget (red mullet); and both red and lean white varieties of rascasse, an ugly, spiny sea creature known as scorpion fish and an absolute must for any bouillabaisse worth its name. (“Alone, it is not particularly good eating, but it is the soul of bouillabaisse,” wrote the great food writer Waverley Root.)

With an index finger, Mr. Para pulled up the poisonous spiny crest hidden inside the head of the vive. “If it pricks you, it can give you a fever,” he said.

“Can it kill you?” I asked.

“No, of course not!” he replied, his derisory tone suggesting that I must be an idiot.

The broth was served first, with slices of crisply toasted baguette, whole cloves of raw garlic and rouille. The tradition here is to rub raw garlic onto the toasts, spoon generous dollops of the rouille on them and float them in the broth. Then came a second course: the just-cooked fish fillets with some broth ladled over them.

The soup, opaque and mud-colored was heavy, viscous and gritty, with small bits of fish settling on the bottom of the bowl.

“This is not for the faint of heart,” one of the other diners said. “This is not a dish appreciated by the young.”

Mr. Para concurred. “It’s an acquired taste, especially when you make it the correct way,” he said. “Frankly, for a special meal at home, I prefer a côte de boeuf.”

He had the highest praise for Mr. Passédat of Le Petit Nice, who is known as the “godfather” of the yearlong food initiative in Marseille and the ultimate cheerleader for bouillabaisse. “He is the star of the region and an artist,” Mr. Para said. “We’re not artists here.”

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