I had my first “real” bouillabaisse two years ago in Cassis. It was something I was looking forward to with such tail-wagging excitement, I think Mr. English and my family considered my certifiably nuts. I think it’s just, I spend so much time renovating the French classics I know and love, that I can’t wait to take a bite of another stalwart so I can break it down and build it back up again. I collect meals of classics French dishes like some women collect Chanel and Hermes bags. Beautiful, forever, well made, and worth the cost.
So, back to bouillabaisse. I’d done some digging up of information and discovered that the best was served at Chez Gilbert in the Cassis harbor. The man at the next table said he drove down for Paris that day especially for that bouillabaisse. I was the only one at the table who ordered it; they were all fools. It came in courses. An urn of thick fish soup with saffron. A plate of whole local fishes filleted before my eyes, with little mounds of peeled steamed potatoes. And toasts, and rouille–that condiment named for rust stuffed with garlic, saffron, and chili. I ate and I ate and honestly, I’ve never seen so much food in my life. It was one of those things you remember. Maybe because it’s the dish of the city where Maman was born–Marseille. Maybe because it’s one of the few French classics with seafood, because I prefer fish to anything else. Maybe it was like getting an orange Berkin–Hermes orange and rouille are very close in color. Whatever it was, I loved it and remembered it and cherished it.
So, when my cousin messaged me on Facebook saying that if I was in Beausoleil, I had to check out La Mère Germaine in Villefranche-sur-Mer for the best bouillabaisse of my life, I listened. I told my family that really, it wasn’t a selfish desire, because my father is pescatarian, and wouldn’t it be nice for him to try a local dish that he could eat. Wink wink. Had nothing to do with me at all!
We arrived at this restaurant just at the very brink of the water, filled with sailboats. There was a tank of lobsters, and a view of the graying waters in the dusk. We ordered rosé, because that is what one seems to always do in the South of France. And it’s my favorite anyway. My father and I shared our favorite appetizer: mussels, with mignonette sauce, brown bread, and fancy butter D’Isigny. Then, Maman had the lobster, in a lobster sauce, with mashed potatoes. M. Français had pavé de veau. But my father and I (New Yorkers are so smart!) had the “mini” bouillabaisse, served as one course for one. There were four fishes, but I only caught the names of bream and John Dory. The broth was thick in a way that I can never recreate. Heady with garlic and saffron and vegetables–onions, and fennel. It coated the fish, and was a soup at the same time. There were shreds of Parmesan, a tub of rouille that I dumped onto everything in site. Rouille may be my favorite thing. It means “rust” in English, for its color, and is a homemade mayonnaise spiked with garlic, saffron, and chilis. Toasts were served to dip into the sauce, and to smear with rouille, and whole pieces of garlic to rub on them to add even more garlic to the whole experience. It was delicious, but in one of those satisfying ways where you know you’re getting the best possible thing for your money and your time. I have to say, and it pains me to write this, it was even better than Chez Gilbert!
And for dessert, peaches seared with thyme, with raspberry sorbet. The picture was too low quality to publish!