The bouillabaisse of Marseille

Publié le 3 February 2017 Mis à jour le 20 July 2018

If you want to see proof of Marseille's Greek history, simply take a stroll in the 'Calanques' fjords, a boat trip over to Frioul archipelago, or admire the city's dazzling white buildings... Beyond its inimitable quality of light, architecture and personality, Marseille's gastronomy is also inspired by Hellenistic traditions. The proof of the pudding? Our famous Bouillabaisse is the heir to Kakavia – a nourishing fish soup savoured from the shores of Thessalonica to the coast of Piraeus.

The tradition of boiling fish and dipping bread into it goes back to time immemorial, but the first two manuscripts detailing the recipe date back to 1768. Both were written by cultivated bourgeois women promoting 'healthy cooking'.

In 1785, the first work to mention Bouillabaisse was soberly entitled 'Dictionary of Provence and Comtat Venaissin'; a year later, word spread across the French capital's ramparts, borne by three young cooks from the Haute-Provence area - probably the banks of the River Durance -, who opened a restaurant serving Provencal specialities. But it was in the early 19th century, at the dawn of the 1820's, that journalists from Marseille, including Joseph Méry, began to sing the city's praise in Paris. At the same time, Alexandre Dumas discovered Château d’If - and everyone knows the rest of that story...

So, is Bouillabaisse really a poor man's dish as popular folklore would have it? And is there just one kind of Bouillabaisse?

When Victor Hugo arrived in Marseille in 1839, he was astonished by the impressive number of restaurants located between the current Saint-Charles railway station (which didn't exist at the time; the first train arrived in Marseille in 1849) and port. Although little-known, these addresses were sumptuous and laden with gold leaf and mirrors reflecting their silver cutlery. They served a golden-colour Bouillabaisse, spiked with liberal amounts of saffron. At the same time, Bouillabaisse made with sardines, cod or sea bass was being cooked up at all the modest little fishermen's cottages along the coast, around Arenc and La Joliette. Alphonse de Lamartine and Gérard de Nerval fell in love with the Bouillabaisse served at L’Estaque, then a holiday destination for bourgeois families from Marseille and Aix. It was here too that the wife of an Aix-born banker rented out an elegant bastide in 1870; her son, Paul Cézanne, went on to paint the Impressionist movement's finest landscapes there.

Clearly, the soup served in palaces was very different to that served in family homes from the northern hills to the 'Calanques' fjords in the South.
The 19th century witnessed a constant battle between the upholders of an 'economical' recipe made with leftovers and illustrious chefs who, hoisted to fame by their Bouillabaisse, vied to concoct the most luxurious masterpiece.
In the 20th century, Bouillabaisse came to be considered a festive dish, whose destiny was sealed by a 'charter' drawn up in 1979. And never mind if its authors, unaware of the other historic recipes, ignored the delicious variations on this mythical soup. Scorpion fish has always formed the basis of the recipe, but a precise list of fish was apparently drawn up in 1830… not including lobster.

Today, despite a few historic certitudes, everyone is convinced they possess 'the' authentic Bouillabaisse recipe. But the reality is not quite so clear. A family meal par excellence, Bouillabaisse varies according to the whims of every cook: some like it with potato, others with orange – but everyone claims theirs is the best! At the risk of disappointing purists, there is no set recipe and that's no bad thing. Served 'old-fashioned style' or as a milk shake, in three different courses or a single dish, the only thing that truly counts is the smile on the faces of the people at the table...

"I'm painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won't surprise you when it's a question of painting large sunflowers."
Vincent Van Gogh

Le Grand Pastis offers a picture-postcard portrait of gourmet Provence. Pierre Psaltis shares his conception of gastronomy, from the simplest to the most sophisticated, presents his tasted-and-approved recipes, uncorks the finest vintages and invites you out to dinner... A concentrate of news, spiked with the inimitable local accent.
Pierre Psaltis

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