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Bouillabaisse: From Humble Beginnings To High-Class Tourist Meal

Sep 29, 2012
Originally published on September 29, 2012 3:17 pm

The southern French city of Marseille on the Mediterranean Sea has long been famous for its spicy fish soup, known as bouillabaisse. The soup started as a poor man's meal, made with leftover fish scraps, but these days, it's evolved to the point that it can run connoisseurs about $75 for a generously sized meal.

"In the first part, you make a soup with all these different little fish. With vegetables, tomatoes, onion, garlic, fennel, olive oil, saffron. And after, we cook the six different fish in the soup. It's very big. But this is a vrai bouillabaisse," says Christian Buffa, owner of Le Miramar, a popular destination restaurant on Marseille's old port for the region's famous soup.

The city is pretty serious about the vrai part. Back in 1980, according to the city's bouillabaisse information website (yes, they have one), local chefs drew up a charter describing the necessary ingredients in order to prevent the soup from being "debased by these tourist traps." And, possibly, to bring a little business their own way.

Buffa gets his fish fresh every day at Marseille's fish market near the docks. He says in the summertime, the restaurant needs some 2 tons of fish a week. He says a true bouillabaisse contains about 3 pounds of fish for one person, and these days, it includes high quality fish like John Dory, monkfish and red snapper. As he speaks to me, the restaurant's 15 chefs are bustling around, preparing for the Saturday lunch rush.

The stew wasn't always so fancy, says waiter Andre Bluck.

"Bouillabaisse was created by the sailors who worked on the fishing boats. All the best fish was sold, so they took what was left over and made a spicy stew of it," he says. It might have been made of shellfish and rockfish that was too bony to sell.

Some Marseillais like to say bouillabaisse was the soup the Roman goddess Venus sent to her husband, Vulcan, so he would sleep while she pursued her lover, Mars, according to the city's website.

Around noon, the Miramar begins to fill up with tourists from around the world, and from not so far away. Parisians Franc and Antoine DuBosc have brought their families down on the train. They came to Marseille for the sun, sea and bouillabaisse, they say.

Finally, my own Bouillabaisse arrives. Waiter Bluck serves up the first part, a thick fish soup, which is eaten with croutons dipped in rouille, a garlicky bread-based sauce that no self-respecting bouillabaisse would do without. Then he presents the six fish, which will be cut up and put in the soup as a sort of second course.

A crisp, dry white or rose is the perfect accompaniment to the spicy delicacy. Diner Elaine Cobbe, who hails from Ireland, is enchanted by the dish and the ritual around it.

"It's very good. I love the two-course idea of the meal. ... There's so much saffron in it. It's so yellow and orange. It's sort of like the sun down here in Marseille," Cobbe says.

I'd have to agree. The taste is spicy, warm and hearty, the soup's smoothness gradually revealing the complexity of the dish. The crunch of croutons and garlic, the joy of rubbing garlic on the croutons and slathering the rouille sauce on it, and finally, the chunky fish flesh. It's a full meal and a spicy appetizer, all combined.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The southern French city of Marseille on the Mediterranean Sea has long been famous for its spicy fish soup, known as bouillabaisse. Eleanor Beardsley sampled the dish, and sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The kitchen is already hopping early in the morning at the restaurant Le Miramar, on Marseille's old port. The Miramar's 15 chefs are busy preparing for the Saturday lunch crowd. One of the favorite dishes, and a specialty here, is the traditional Marseille bouillabaisse. Miramar owner Christian Buffa explains that it's made in two stages - the first with tiny sea creatures and the second with the main fish.

CHRISTIAN BUFFA: In the first part you make a soup with all this different little fish with vegetables, tomatoes, onion, garlic, fennel, olive oil, saffron. And after, we cook the six different fish in the soup. It's very big. But this is a vrai bouillabaisse.

BEARDSLEY: Buffa gets his fish fresh every day at Marseille's fish market near the docks. He says in the summertime the restaurant needs some two tons of fish a week. A true bouillabaisse contains about three pounds of fish for one person. And it costs about $75. Ironically, it used to be a poor man's dish, says waiter Andre Bluck.

ANDRE BLUCK: (Through Translator) Bouillabaisse was created by the sailors who worked on the fishing boats. All the best fish was sold, so they took what was left over and made a spicy stew of it.

BEARDSLEY: Bouillabaisse today has high quality fish such as John Dory, Monkfish and Red Snapper.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Around noon, the Miramar begins to fill up with tourists from around the world and not so far away. Parisians Franc and Antoine DuBosc have brought their families down on the train.

ANTOINE DUBOSC: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: We came down to Marseille for the sun and the sea, and to eat a bouillabaisse, of course. You can't get a real bouillabaisse in Paris, they say.

Finally, my own bouillabaisse arrives.

BLUCK: Bon appetit.

BEARDSLEY: Waiter Andre serves up the first course, a thick fish soup, which is eaten with croutons dipped in rouille, a mayonnaise, olive oil, garlic and saffron spread. Andre presents our six fish, which will be cut up and put in the soup as a sort of second course.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID BEING POURED)

BEARDSLEY: A crisp, dry white or rose is the perfect accompaniment to the spicy delicacy. Diner Elaine Cobbe, who hails from Ireland, is enchanted by the dish and the ritual around it.

ELAINE COBBE: It's very good. I love the two-course idea of the meal. I really enjoyed the first, the soup part. And then, it just looks beautiful. The color as well. There's just so much saffron in it, and it's so yellow and orange. And it's kind of like the sun down here in Marseille.

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.