Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In praise of Bouillabaisse

Today, July 18th

Today is the birthday (in 1811) of William Makepeace Thackeray, best known for his satirical novel Vanity Fair. Thackeray lived in Paris for a while, and developed a taste for bouillabaisse which he honoured in a poem. Here is an extract from it:

A Street there is in Paris famous,
For which no rhyme our language yields,
Rue Neuve des petits Champs its name is—
The New Street of the Little Fields;
And there ’s an inn, not rich and splendid,
But still in comfortable case—
The which in youth I oft attended,
To eat a bowl of Bouillabaisse.

This Bouillabaisse a noble dish is—
A sort of soup, or broth, or brew,
Or hotchpotch of all sorts of fishes,
That Greenwich never could outdo;
Green herbs, red peppers, mussels, saffern,
Soles, onions, garlic, roach, and dace;
All these you eat at Terrés tavern,
In that one dish of Bouillabaisse.

Bouillabaisse is particularly associated with the Mediterranean coast of France, and every town claims to serve the authentic version, as every inland town claims the authentic cassoulet. Every local claim to authenticity is supported by a local myth. In Marseilles it is said that it was invented by the goddess Aphrodite (or Venus if you wish), in order to deliver sufficient saffron to her husband to make him sleep (it was believed that this was an effect of the spice), so that she could slip away to meet her lover. Another story is that it was invented by “a certain Abbess of a Marseilles nunnery” for a Friday abstinence meal – that is, a meatless meal, for a bowl of bouillabaisse full of seafood can hardly be called maigre. In the Camargue region, the folk of the little town of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer say that when the saints were washed up on their shores after leaving the Holy Land, they fell asleep exhausted, waking to find the local fishermen cooking bouillabaisse ready for when they awoke.

Every region and every expert insists that particular combinations of fish and shellfish are essential for authenticity, but in reality of course the dish is an opportunistic one typical of peasant and fishing communities – whatever you catch goes into the pot. The author of The Larousse Gastronomique (I am using the 1961 edition) maintains that the authentic bouillabaisse comes from Marseilles, and that ‘no mussels or any other such molluscs should be added, as is the wont of many Paris restaurants.’ Not getting the ‘authentic’ version does not seem to have spoiled Thackeray's enjoyment of the dish.

The Larousse explains that in some regions potato is added and saffron omitted, or leeks are substituted for onions, and the garnish also varies in different regions (poached eggs sound good), and that the bread it is served over and with varies (toasted or not, rubbed with garlic or not, or in Marseilles a special bread is made for for bouillabaisse called marette). It also explains at some length the difference between bouillabaisse and chaudrée and cotriade and bourrides , and not understanding the differences myself between these dishes, I attempted to summarise the Larousse’s descriptions. I am no clearer on the subject, but you may be.

Chaudrée : fish stew from Fouras on the Atlantic Coast in the Charente-Maritime region; based on a court-bouillon with herbs and white wine.

Cotriade: fish stew from Brittany; contains potatoes, onions, herbs.

Bourride: fish stew from Provence; onions, tomatoes, garlic, saffron, thickened with egg yolks mixed with aioli.

I have chosen one of the bouillabaisse recipes from the Larousse, a ‘home dish’ version from Provence, which the author stresses ‘in no way resembles the bouillabaisse provençale’, presumably because it contains spinach. And no fish.

Spinach Bouillabaisse.
Pick over and wash 2 pounds (1 kilo) of spinach. Cook for 5 minutes in boiling water, then dip into cold water and drain, press with the hands to extract all water, and chop.
Put ¼ cup ( ½ decilitre) of oil into an earthenware casserole, add a chopped onion, previously fried lightly without browning, and the spinach. Cook on a low fire for five minutes, stirring all the time.
When the spinach is nicely seared, add five sliced waxy potatoes. Season with salt, pepper and a little saffron. Moisten with a quart (1 litre) of boiling water, add 2 chopped cloves of garlic and a sprig of fennel, and leave to cook, covered with a lid, on a low flame.
When the potatoes are cooked, break into the pan 4 eggs and cook gently. Serve the dish as it is.

The only explanation I can think of for a fish-less bouillabaisse is that the word ‘bouillabaisse’ comes from bouillir (to boil) and abaisser (to reduce) - there are no inherently fishy connotations in the word itself, so perhaps once upon a time it applied to any sort of stew? Any French culinary scholars out there care to enlighten us?

Tomorrow’s Story …

Victualling the ‘Mary Rose’.

Quotation for the Day …

At that comfortable tavern on Pontchartrain we had a bouillabaisse than which a better was never eaten at Marseilles; and not the least headache in the morning, I give you my word; on the contrary, you only wake with a sweet refreshing thirst for claret and water. William Makepeace Thackeray.

1 comment:

Ed said...

And now I know why there were potatoes in the one I had the other night...