Wedgewood blue skies, dusky purple tinge of fragrant efflorescent fields of lavender, which is incorporated into oils that are then infused into honey – these are some of the gifts of Provence. Not to forget the hills and valleys, quaint villages, rolling vineyards, birthplace of the award-winning varietals of pink rosé wines, and cuisine that is both complex and comforting….
Alluring Côte d’Azur
Provence is the region in Southeastern France bordering Italy and the Mediterranean Sea. To the south is the Côte d’ Azur (French Riviera), lined with beautiful cities and towns along the coast. Famous for its alluring and intriguing locales as well as the aqua blue water running through the historic Verdon Gorge.
Situated in the historical province of Provence, Marseille is the capital of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. It is located on the coast of the Gulf of Lion, part of the Mediterranean Sea, near the mouth of the Rhône river. From this provincial capital comes a well-known, and sometimes under-appreciated soup.
“Soup in summer?!” But I assure you that this meal is ideally suited for the season.
Bouillabaisse avec Rouille:
The Preeminent Seafood Soup of Marseille (Serves 6)
A meal that has been tried and tested; I curated this recipe after one of my first visits to Provence with my sisters. You can read the stories in my book: Seva, The art of Hospitality.
I put it on my menu late spring, early summer some 15 years or so ago at the hospital where I worked. (Due to the environment in my place of business, I omitted the shellfish.) It was quite popular with our residents, easy for them to grab, get some balanced nourishment before their next call to duty.
I recall one of our customers, sitting out on the patio, under the wisteria, devouring the vivid orange red bouillabaisse, simultaneously making notes in his red notebook. When I went over to greet him, he remarked that he could not believe we served rouille in California and that it tasted better than any he had tried during his travels to Cote d’ Azure! He asked me if I would share my recipe with him so he could take it back for his family in France.
Of course, I obliged, but the highlight of the day was when I shared this information with my team and witnessed their beaming faces and shouts of “teamwork makes the dream work!”. It impressed them that they had been instrumental in executing the dish for a Frenchman who was researching his new travel book!
Not to be confused with a bisque, which is smooth and silky, laced with a touch of cream. Nor a chowder, which is a stew made with clams, vegetables such as corn and potatoes with the addition of milk or cream and sometimes topped with crispy bacon bits.
Nor to be mistaken for a Cacciucco or Cioppino from the coastal towns of Tuscany, and we can explore this another time.
The Perfect Summer Soup
Soups are relatively easy to prepare in various seasons and offer a complete one pot nutritious meal for the whole family.
You can certainly make the soup without the fish trims shrimp shells and shellfish; you may have to add a little bit more fish to enjoy the deep flavors.
A white fish with integrity is required here. I use cod or halibut not only the sweet, delicate, and buttery taste, but the firmness of these fish remains intact yet moist and tender.
The white wines I have recommended below lend the right amount of acidity to balance with the tomatoes. You may or may not want to use bottled clam juice, do look out for a good brand though as some of them can be salty and there are others that do not enhance.
In my experience, there is enough seafood flavor from a simple homemade broth by using fresh fish.
Sometimes the soup is flavored with a little Pernod. In my opinion, the acidity from the wine compliments the fish stew significantly. I want to taste the sweetness from the fish without the alcohol content of Pernod (anise-flavored liquor). I opt to use some of the broad glossy green leaves of tarragon here. Together with the fennel the soup is perfumed and the flavors are heightened.
Mussels and Clams are easily available all scrubbed and debearded but do watch out for any broken shells, discard these as well as any shellfish that does not open during cooking, these are considered inedible.
Typically, rouille is made with fresh or day-old plain breadcrumbs but I prefer to use almonds for textural purposes.
Ingredients for Bouillabaisse:
Aromatics; divide and save half of each; 1 cup chopped Leeks, 1 cup chopped white onion, 3 whole garlic cloves, 3 large, chopped tomatoes, 1 cup chopped fennel, save the fronds for later. 2-3 sprigs of tarragon. Peel of one small orange, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, 1 cup dry white wine like Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, or Chardonnay.
Herbs: Fennel fronds, parsley, few saffron threads, fresh or dry bay leaf, Himalayan pink salt and cracked black pepper to taste.
Protein: 1 lb. of firm white fish like cod, halibut or sole, cut into 2-inch pieces. 1 lb. peeled shrimp save shrimp shells (optional), 1 lb. debearded and scrubbed Mussels (optional)
¼ cup Olive Oil, sea salt and cracked pepper to taste, 8 cups water, feel free to add more should you desire more broth.
In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat, add the onions, leeks and fennel and cook gently till softened. Stir in garlic until fragrant, add tomatoes, water, saffron, herbs, shrimp shells (optional) and any fish trimmings or bones (optional) to make a rich stock. Add Tomato paste, simmer gently for 20 minutes, don’t boil, or else you will have a bitter stock with impurities. Strain broth into another pot, discard all the solids and bring to a boil. Add the remaining aromatics and the wine, allow to simmer for a few minutes then add fish, and shellfish, cover the pot, simmer till the mussels open which should take about 5 minutes. Season to taste, serve with Rouille on the side.
Ingredients for Rouille, an accoutrement, an integral part of the traditional Bouillabaisse:
2 large roasted red bell peppers, hulled & seeded 3 cloves garlic, degermed, 3 sprigs of fresh parsley, ½ cup of toasted ground almonds, ½ teaspoon of smoked paprika, sea salt to taste, juice of half a lemon, ½ cup of extra virgin Olive Oil
Method: Puree all of the ingredients except for the oil. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil whilst processing, for a smooth emulsion.
Rouille is often spread generously over a crusty baguette and served with bouillabaisse. My version, however, calls for Crispy Polenta Bites. Polenta is quite popular in Corsica, another regional French cuisine that must be explored!
Please share your thoughts about this recipe once you have tried it.