There was one thing I had to do, that I had been meaning to do, before I left the South of France. In last week’s French in a Flash, I wrote that maman was born in Marseille. The reputation of great women spreads the world over, and they become known for their beauty, subtlety, mystery, and magnetism. One such Marseillaise is maman; another is La Bouillabaisse. So it is no coincidence that this past Sunday, the day I ate La Bouillabaisse, was Mother’s Day in France.
Bouillabaisse is a fish stew indigenous to Marseille. There, when served traditionally, the many kinds of fish and the potatoes are served separately from the broth, which is for all intents and purposes Soupe de Poisson, flavored with saffron and espelette, fennel and garlic, bay and tomatoes. Alongside comes the traditional rouille, an aioli stained and scented with saffron and espelette, and a pile of little crisp baguette toasts.
We saved the best for last. We had heard from all the locals that Chez Gilbert was the best seafood restaurant in Cassis, and it sat perched under its red and gold canopy right on the harbor, amidst the sailboats that swayed on the waves to the beat of the guitarist humming “Moon River” on a bench by the docks. The four of us filed in, and I commanded a rose wine from the nearby winehouse town of Bandol. There were many toasts, some of which we shared with the bouillabaisse-stained table to our right.
I told the waitor, “Sir, I want your bouillabaisse!” Then I asked him if I might have a green salad to start. He smiled paternally, and denied me. “Mademoiselle,” he corrected. “When you have bouillabaisse, you have nothing else.”
I do not believe I have ever pined in anticipation more for a single plate of food. I have made versions of bouillabaisse before: a version of only shellfish with chip-sliced potatoes and clams, mussels, shrimps, scallops, calamari, and lobster, and a Seared Chilean Sea Bass in Bouillabaisse Broth with Rock Shimp and Mussels. But I had never had the real thing, only twenty minutes outside of Marseille.
First the waitor brought the platter of the fish that had been poached whole in the broth: there were six types, but monkfish is the only one I can confirm for sure. He then took them away to “prepare” them. They re-emerged, skins, heads, and (mostly) bones removed, accompanied by potatoes poached and stained in the same broth, like white linen in some dark tea. Then, hot from a steaming silver urn, the paternal waiter ladled the broth into my bowl, and after depositing a ramekin of rouille and baguette toasts beside me on the only-white-for-a-minute tablecloth, left me to my pleasure, only to return once with a hot refill of broth.
To my shock and dismay, no one else ordered the Bouillabaisse. They all laughed and said, “We know we can have some of yours. You’ll never finish it.” “Ha!” I scoffed. That’s what they think. I got through one fish, two fish, three fish, and maybe bluefish. But I couldn’t keep up. The broth is thick from chunks of fallen filet, and the bouillon of bones. The baguette with rouille was so pungently fragrant that I couldn’t bring myself to take a bite without it. It was so complex, and yet, so delightfully simple–what must have once been a humble, frugal dish, around which only celebrations could take place.
And as for the rest of the meal? Well, you’ll get a glimpse of that too. But why talk of shoes and ships and ceiling wax, when you can have the sea, boiling hot, on the bay of Cassis?
After all, when you have bouillabaisse, you have nothing else.
Fresh Pineapple in its Juice with Coconut Creme Chantilly and Mini Financiers
The Rest of the Meal