Bouillabaisse Is Not Just Any Fish Soup

The other night, I made clam chowder for my son who was visiting and my husband drank a little, only out of courtesy since he hates fish soups. His face--as he drank it--brought back the memory of Bouillabaisse. During the late seventies, with our two children we stayed in a seaside village in southern France for a couple of days where a sandy beach with small eateries full of tourists cupped the sea and the steep, rugged, and probably granite hills in the background cut into a wide stretch of beach. The second evening we were there, we bought our way into a beach-barbecue or rather into a group waiting to have some Bouillabaisse cooked over a flaming fire. This summer ritual of sorts took place beneath a crescent moon with waterfront lights echoing on the Mediterranean and paying guests sitting around a somewhat primitive fire on the sands. The fire was lit with wood, some charcoal, and crushed papers under an iron grid.

The flames leaped over the grid all the way to the second iron shelf with the large round pot over it. The cooking of the soup took probably 20 to 25 minutes, tops. It wasn't so much the soup, but the ambiance created around it, which the French know how to do best. This evening would be one to remember, especially when our untamed little ones sat quietly nestling to us, watching the fire and the meal cooking over it. "In memory of dear old times, Welcome the wine, whate'er the seal is; And sit you down and say your grace With thankful heart, whate'er the meal is.

Here comes the smoking Bouillabaisse!" by William Makepeace Thackeray What a ceremonial occasion this was! The basic idea was to boil everything fresh to make a broth of a soup and eat the boiled solids as the main meal with a glass of white wine. A few minutes before the soup was served, the chef placed several lengthwise sliced baguettes to toast on the top iron grid shelf near the pot. Then he spread butter on the toasted bread and put a piece of toast in each bowl. After that, he grated some cheese on each bowl with great showmanship, since "no theatrics, no food" has always been the French cuisine's motto. Two young French women clad in beach attire passed the bowls around the customers. I took a sip and I thought I am in Heaven.

It tasted so delicious. My husband, however, almost gagged, with the soup about to come out of wherever it went, his nose or stomach, I'll never know. Luckily, because we had little kids with us, I had a load of Kleenex tissues in my bag. So, to save face, I lied. I told everybody that he was allergic to the fennel in the soup.

Then, the annoyed chef, who probably didn't buy my lie, took the bowl away from him and dumped its contents inside a thrash container nearby; however, he--very politely--filled my husband's glass with wine and served him some toast with cheese. Right then, to top it all, one of my offspring asked out loud: "Why is Daddy so weird?" Oh, Boy! Years later, while discussing our children's antics, we told this incident to a group of friends. One of them happened to be of French origin. Sounding truly defensive, he said that Bouillabaisse was the invention of the Marseilles fishermen and was originally made with seawater and very rare Mediterranean fish. True, Bouillabaisse chefs were so incensed over its bad replicas that they have formed a union to protect the exploitation of the Bouillabaisse.

Those who created the bad versions were the unscrupulous money-hungry, tourist-hunting cooks who demeaned the authentic Bouillabaisse's name. Those counterfeiters aside, the Frenchman claimed, whoever did try true Bouillabaisse would never forget the experience. Well, we never forgot ours. May the French preserve the honor of their Bouillabaisse forever.


By: Joy Cagil

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