Our next-door neighbour Lucienne was in the village shop last week when I called in for our traditional daily lunchtime baguette (a great French habit).
“I’m so glad you are here” I say, “I need your advice, please.”
“Ah bon” she replies, with a typical Gallic shrug of the shoulders.
“My parents arrive next week from the UK to spend Christmas with us, and my father likes fish soup / fish stew, so I am going to make Bouillabaisse de Marseille. The thing is I don’t quite know how to serve it. Do you serve the fish soup in a bowl and the fish separately? The recipe says to serve the fish separately, but the photo has the fish in the soup”.
Lucienne looks quite horrified. Oh no, another French gaffe… EVERYONE in France probably knows how to serve Bouillabaisse de Marseille.
“Nicole, you can’t make Bouillabaisse de Marseille here, it’s just impossible”.
“Why not?” I ask, puzzled.
“Because we live in Brittany, that’s why. Bouillabaisse is a dish made in the South of France.”
“I know, but I can try, surely?”
“Impossible, you cannot buy rascasse here.” (rascasse is red scorpion fish).
“Yes, but the recipe says 2kg of an assortment of fish, I’m sure I can get the other 7 types of fish”, I stammer, now feeling very unsure about the whole thing.
Lucienne shook her head. “Non, non, Nicole, it just won’t do. You must cook traditional Breton recipes using local ingredients, the result will be far superior and authentic. How about Pot-au-feu?”
“So you don’t know how to serve Bouillabaisse de Marseille”’ I persist.
“Oh, she tuts, shaking her head… of course I know. If you really must cook this dish, which I guarantee won’t be anything like the real thing, you must stain the fish and put it on a warm plate, give everyone a bowl of the soup and let everyone help themselves to the fish which they place in the soup. You must serve this with bread and rouille.” (rouille is a sauce that is made with olive oil and thickened with breadcrumbs. It is seasoned with garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper. It is mostly used in Provençale cuisine).
I don’t think my neighbour was delighted at the outcome of our conversation, but we got there in the end. My Dad won’t be any the wiser, his British palate is unlikely to make the difference. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, right? He will just enjoy a beautiful fresh fish soup, and if nobody spills the beans, then neither will I!
Editor’s Note : Bouillabaisse is a traditional fish stew that originated in Marseille in the South of France. In accordance with the Charter of Marseillaise Bouillabaisse, signed by a number of restaurants in 1980 to standardise the Bouillabaisse recipe, Bouillabaisse must be made with at least 4 of the following fish… Monkfish, John Dory, Gurnard, Mullet, Rascasse, Conger Eel and Red Rascasse (a type of Scorpion fish). In fact, authentic recipes for bouillabaisse traditionally always contain rascasse.
The closest Breton equivalent to Bouillabaisse de Marseille is called kaoteriad (or “cotriade” in French). The literal translation is “content of a cooking pot” (or “contenu d’une marmite” in French). It originates from the Morbihan département. The traditional recipe is a mix of fish such as conger eel, sea bream, hake, sardines, sole or even mackerel. Shell fish can be added (for example mussels), herbs and seasoning (chervil, chives, garlic, bouquet garni) and vegetables too (potatoes, tomatoes, onions). It can be served with garlic croutons.