Bouillabaisse is serious business in southern France, especially in the seaside town of Marseille . The delectable fish soup originated here, and every chef and fisherman claims to have the best recipe. The art of cooking bouillabaisse began on the Mediterranean coast centuries ago, probably by sailors thriftily turning unsold fish into a spicy stew. It soon became the signature dish for Marseille. In fact, bouillabaisse is so important to Marseille’s identity, restaurateurs drew up a charter in 1980 to define and protect the authentic recipe. Almost every restaurant with Provencal cuisine on the menu proudly serves bouillabaisse, and it was my good fortune to taste it at one of the best.
Christian Buffa, the chef and proprietor of Le Miramar restaurant, which faces Marseille’s harbor, is renowned for his superb Mediterranean cookery and le vrai bouillabaisse: the real thing. I feasted on Chef Buffa’s version, and I can believe it. The rich, spicy, flavorful stew was outstanding.
But bouillabaisse is more complicated than I expected. I didn’t know that the traditional way of presenting it is in two courses. First came a thick soup, to be dolloped with garlic-rubbed croutons and a deep orange rouille. The broth’s combination of olive oil, onions, garlic, saffron, fennel, tomatoes and herbs was marvelous, but I wondered where the chunks of fish were. I’d seen platters of fish come and go; why were there no pieces in my soup?
My empty bowl was whisked away, and then came the main bowl, filled with more soup, and this time with seafood. This is an expensive dish, with more than enough food for one person—about three pounds per person, Chef Buffa said. He makes his choices every morning at the fish market on the wharf just a few steps away: monkfish, eel, daurade, rascasse, shellfish, lobster—whatever will create the best bouillabaisse that day. I’m not sure what else goes into it. Leeks, perhaps, and potato, anise, maybe pastis. I didn’t ask for the recipe, although it is on the Miramar website; this is not a cook-at-home meal for me. I’ll have to return to Marseille for it.
Bouillabaisse is surrounded by legend. The most often told tale is that the goddess Venus was the first to prepare it, hoping to lull her husband to sleep so she could slip away to her lover, Mars. Some say that angels brought bouillabaisse to feed shipwrecked saints, while more prosaic stories have humans inventing it for reasons of their own. What’s certain is that the broth must be both boiled and simmered (bouillir means to boil, and abbaiser means to lower). The fish are cooked in a steaming pot and added in a particular order. “This,” said Christian Buffa of his combination, “is le vrai bouillabaisse.” He is so certain of this, his website is called www.bouillabaisse.com, which is also Le Miramar’s website.
Buffa, a Marseille native, studied under Paul Bocuse, the famous French chef, and worked at noted restaurants before coming to Le Miramar and carrying on a family tradition. Bouillabaisse isn’t his only claim to culinary fame. Our group of three also had a light gazpacho, fresh sardines Provencale, panini with thin truffle slices, and stuffed squid with pesto. A crisp white wine was exactly right for savoring this melange.
In addition to bouillabaisse (it takes 20 minutes to prepare) the plats, or main dishes, include various seafoods in Mediterranean/Italian style with garlic, lemon, rosemary, peppers and tomatoes, and onions. Duck, beef, and lamb are served with unique sauces, and they all looked and smelled great as they wafted by to other tables. My Marseille visit was partially hosted, including this dinner, and I can only say that I’ll be more than happy to return on my own at the earliest opportunity, with a major appetite.
Le Miramar is in the Old Port, Marseille’s historic harbor where hundreds of sailboats and yachts are docked. Dozens of other restaurants with outdoor tables under awnings are on the same walkway, a festive place filled with tourists out to enjoy the scene and musicians and acrobats performing for tips.
Written by and photos by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com