Bouillabaisse is perhaps one of the most famous of all seafood soups. It originated in the coastal areas of Provence in France when local fishermen would cook up the small fish and crabs not sold from the day's catch into a flavoursome meal redolent with saffron, orange and fennel. From such humble beginnings, the soup now enjoys an almost mythological status. People travel from all over the world to Provence in the hope of tasting an authentic version of this fabulous soup.
The French are very protective of their culture, language and cuisine. There are many instances of claims made that a French gourmet delight can only be produced in a particular area or region and not replicated elsewhere. The winemaking concept of terroir is a perfect example of this. Nowhere however, is this protective argument found to the degree of bouillabaisse. The locals claim that true bouillabaisse is impossible outside of Provence, due to the particular mixture of fish the soup must contain. The most important of which is racasse or scorpion fish, a fierce looking, spiny red creature that is reputed to provide much of the flavour to this soup.
To me, this presents a conundrum, which makes the provision of a recipe redundant. If you, as most likely is the case, live outside of Provence, then you will not have access to the raw materials for bouillabaisse. If you do live in Provence, then I am sure that you do not need a recipe. What I will provide instead is a seafood soup inspired by bouillabaisse that is perfectly attainable in coastal areas the world over. It would be more correctly called Provencal fish soup.
It contains most of the same flavourings and accoutrements, including a garnish of freshly grilled crouton topped with rouille, a fiery chilli spiked mayonnaise. Set aside an afternoon if you plan to make this dish and invite around some of your closest friends. It is a very special dish indeed.
Provencal Fish Soup
2 litres (8 cups) fish stock
60 ml (1/4 cup) olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Peel of 1 orange
2 bay leaves
15'ish threads of saffron
3 waxy potatoes (kipfler, ratte or desiree)
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
30 ml (2 Tbs) Pernod
60 ml (1/4 cup) dry white wine
2 Tbs parsley, chopped
600 gm (1 lb) Mixed fish fillets and shellfish (Try snapper, cod, sea bass, salmon, crab, scallops, prawns (shrimp), squid. Just make sure it is spankingly fresh)
Freshly ground black pepper
6 thick slices of good bread (sourdough or ciabatta)
1/2 cup of rouille (Please don't tell me if you mix mayo and tobasco together instead)
In a large heavy based saucepan heat the olive oil to medium heat and cook the onion, carrot, garlic, bay leaves, saffron and orange rind for 5 minutes. Slice the potatoes into thin discs. Add to the pot with the tomatoes and saute for another 5 minutes. Deglaze the pot with the Pernod and wine and simmer until the liquid has reduced a little. Add the fish stock and bring to the simmer. Deal with the seafood. Cut the fish into chunks, peel the prawns, clean the squid and slice. You need your seafood to be in bite size pieces. When the potatoes are just about cooked, add the seafood and cook for just a few minutes. Please do not overcook. Remember that the seafood will continue to cook when the soup has been removed from the heat. Season with salt and pepper
Place 2 Tbs of the rouille into a bowl and pour in one ladle of hot broth. Mix well, then pour into the soup pot, mixing well. This adds thickness and gloss to the soup. Grill the bread until browned and immediately ladle the soup into 6 warm bowls. Float 1 slice of toasted bread in each bowl and top with a dollop of rouille. Scatter with the parsley and grind over more black pepper. Add a little drizzle of olive oil to the top of each soup.
Serve with good friends, more bread and a fully flavoured dry white wine. Try a lightly wooded chardonnay or an aged semillon.