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Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my

blog postings inspired by my time in and around

Aix-en-Provence and the Vaucluse. The spot includes travel tips,

discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,

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tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bouillabaisse, or Lights, Camera, Action!

The serious cooking lesson

Old Port of Marseille

 Marseille fish market (conger eel)

”Noble” fish ready for simmering

Rockfish ready for the broth (I like the cute little green ones);

Runaway crab along with the other cooked fish

The result – the second yummy course

I was just hanging my laundry out to dry in the garden when a photographer appeared. He claimed to be with a film company and was taking some shots in advance of the shoot. (He promised to avoid taking pictures of my lingerie.)

In fact, they were planning to film some scenes for a police comedy in madame’s apartment upstairs. And they wanted to use our apartment as a makeup room. As they needed it from noon until 2 am (in the end they were here until 5 am) they offered to put us up in a hotel room for the night. Fine. We checked in to our hotel at noon, and then went about our daily activities.

When we returned to our room before dinner, we noticed something strange. The lights were all on, for one thing. Then we looked around and found the room full of clothes and duffle bags. Were we meant to share our room with the actors? We went around to the reception desk and saw that the crew was actually filming a scene right there and then, outside the front entrance of the hotel. When they were finished the concierge introduced us to the producer to clarify the situation. Without apology, he simply said we shouldn’t worry, they were just using our room as a change-room for the actors and to store their costumes. Hmm. I guess TV producer operate differently in France.

BOUILLABAISSEFor 58 euros you can get possibly the best version of bouillabaisse in Marseille at Restaurant Miramar. But for 120 euors, you can spend the day with the chef learning how to make it yourself. Of course we chose the latter.

This was one day before the big film shoot at our apartment. As it happened, a different film crew arrived just after us at the restaurant in Marseille. They were planning to make a TV show, the subject being, I believe, the fragility of the heritage of French cooking. As has been my experience elsewhere and in Aix, when a TV crew shows up, they kind of take over, which is what happened. But that’s okay, it added to the excitement of the day.

First a bit of food history: Originally, bouillabaisse was a humble fish stew made by fishermen for themselves and their families using the fish that wasn’t sold at the market that day. The fish was simply boiled in seawater in a cauldron by the docks. The other basic ingredients were old crusts of bread rubbed with garlic to float in the soup, along with a sauce -- aioli or rouille. Gradually the soup became a famous local dish and chefs started adding luxury ingredients, like lobster, turning this poor-man’s soup into something really over-the-top. To rein in the abuses, a charter was formed in 1980, outlining a basic recipe, the types of fish that should be used and the special service for the dish. You can see a little sign with the charter posted in many restaurants today, proving they are following the rules.

The important thing about a bouillabaisse today is that it is a complete meal, served in two courses. The first course is the fish broth on its own, which is made from olive oil, onion, garlic, fennel (fresh, dried branches and seeds), tomatoes, pastis, saffron and pepper and a mixture of small rockfish. These fish are sold in the markets here and are identified especially for fish soup. The ingredients are cooked for around 20 minutes, then chopped up, for example with an immersion blender, then forced through a chinois, or fine sieve. This thick fish broth is then served as is, with crusts of bread on the side. You rub each crouton with garlic, then top it with sauce rouille, which is a garlicky mayonnaise made rusty (rouille) with saffron and powdered red pepper (piment doux, which is milder than cayenne).

The second course consists of six “noble” fish, which have been simmered in the broth, starting with the firmest and biggest, ending with the smallest and most delicate. These fish are meant to be brought to the table and presented formally before being divvied up and served in soup bowls with boiled potatoes and a little more broth. The rouille and croutes stay on the table for you to add as you wish.

If you happen to be in this part of the world, your noble fish should contain rascasse (scorpion fish), rouget grondin (a type of red mullet), vive (weever), Saint Pierre (John Dory), lotte (monkfish) and conger eel. When they are piled on the platter, ready for cooking, they are a tangle of wild colours and shapes, bright and shiny, cute, and truly grotesque.
Our own experience began with a visit to the fish market in the old port on the Quai de Belges, surrounded by hundreds of fishing boats and pleasure boats glistening in the sunlight. We met the fishermen themselves, plying their catch of the day - very different from the fancy fish shops with lovely fillets. The pickings were rather slim that day, as it had been windy the day before, so many fishermen were not able to go out.

We then moved into the restaurant where we sipped some café while waiting for chef to arrive. Finally, he bounded in, with a sack of various other fish on his back, having had to pick it up himself, due to the gas and transportation strikes. Chef Christian Buffa is still young, but already commands a huge reputation for his version of fish soup. He boldly calls it the “vraie (real) bouillabaisse”. And he runs a tight ship. We were installed in one part of the kitchen, watching a whole battery of cooks bustling around elsewhere. He divided his time between us, the needs of the TV crew and bossing around all of his staff.

He walked us through all of the steps. Normally I prefer more of a hands-on experience, but in this case, I was happy to let Christian heave the cleaver and hack our conger eel into big chunks. We were full participants, however, in the making of the sauce rouille. We started with an insane amount of minced garlic, three egg yolks, a few spoonfuls of water, salt, pepper, saffron and piment doux, as noted, a mild chilli pepper powder. We then whisked in a full litre of oil - half olive oil, half peanut oil. The taste is unbelievably rich and unctuous, with a bite, and you would also not believe how much of it you can eat during the course of the meal.

I once swore I would never eat eel, but revelled in the flavour, mixed with all of the other tender fish, gently cooked, bathed in the smooth broth. To experience it there in Marseille, its birthplace, outdoors on a hot sunny day, watching the boats bobbing in the bay, was truly a memorable experience.

The TV show airs on France 2 on Thursday, Nov. 25.

A la prochaine,

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