It won’t matter if the sun doesn’t come out when you serve this soup,
because it is hotter than the sunshine of the Midi. ~ Roger Verge
Nothing could be more Provençal than to eat a fish soup, whether it’s in the form of bouillabaisse, bourride or this simple seductive soup. Marseilles fish soup, or soupe de poissons as it’s known, is something I actually crave all the time. The assertive flavors redolent with the very soul of Provence transports me back to the old port of Marseilles where I first tried it decades ago. I fondly remember my first bite like some men remember their first experience with a woman. You may have many more in life but the first always commands a special place in your heart.
Author Waverly Root writes at length about his frustrating search for an authentic fish soup in ‘the Food of France’. He narrowed it down a version served in Saint Tropez, 65 miles east of Marseilles, largely because the addition of a local chemical green colored fish. For most of his narrative, finding the elusive fish was maddening “because the mistral had been blowing without a let-up during the whole period. This is supposed to discourage the fish, or at least some of the fish, which do not allow themselves to be caught in weather they feel is unsuitable for the purpose. The effect of the mistral on the fish may be a legend, but the effect on the fishermen was observable. They preferred to stay ashore and play petanque…” Finally on his last day in Saint Tropez he is blessed with not one, but two offerings of soupe de poissons.
You can always tell which staff members or clients have travelled to the South by the dreamy, far off look at the very mention of it. It invokes pastis laced Marcel Pagnolian dreams of men playing petanque in village squares scented with sweet garrigue. I made fish soup three times while Chef at my last restaurant in Southern California. The first time was for a movie producer who spent a good deal of time working around Nice, France. We talked at length about Provence, when he abruptly asked, in an almost childlike soft tone, if I knew how to make it correctly. The other two times were simply for me, though I did manage to serve some to paying guests.
Further in Waverly Root’s narrative he provides a compelling argument as what should be the correct title. Soupe de poissons implies a soup with fish floating inside. “A dish providing soup and fish is not the genuine article, as the Riviera understands it. In soupe aux poissons, no fish is visible. It is there all right, but it has disappeared into the liquid. The body of the fish has gone. The soul remains. The fish is ground, crushed, pulverized, and then cooked until it has become liquid itself, and the soup is then strained to eliminate any telltale traces of the ingredients that provides its greatness.”
I remember with fondness, the long walk through Marseilles’ graffiti covered streets to the Vallon-des-Auffes to dine at l’Epuisette. We stopped for a pastis to whet our appetite and contemplate what was to come. The conversation, at least what I remembered of it, centered around our anticipation of the fish soup. Years later, I still am haunted by it’s flavors.
Make a big batch and freeze what you don’t eat. Trust me, you will thank me for this advice.
- ½ cup olive oil
- 2 onions, sliced
- ½ bulb fennel, chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, mashed
- 1 hot pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 teaspoon saffron
- 1 Dungeness crab, crushed
- 28 ounce can San Marzano tomatoes
- 2 pounds fish fillets, see note
- ¼ cup pastis
- 1 cup rouille
- 16 croûtons rubbed with garlic
- 1 cup grated Gruyère
- Heat the olive oil in large, heavy gauge pot. Saute sliced onions and fennel until softened and translucent.
- Add mashed garlic, hot pepper, bay leaf, saffron and crushed dungeness crab. Continue cooking till the pleasant aromas of garlic fill your kitchen and the crab shells begin to turn red.
- Crush the tomatoes and add along with their juice, fish fillets and cover with enough cold water to cover by an inch.
- Bring to boil, then lower to a simmer for thirty minutes.
- Strain saving the solids to run through a food mill. The body of the soup comes from what gets passed through the mill and added back to the broth. I pick the harder crab shell out as they tend to get stuck in the food mill.
- Adjust the seasonings and serve in heated bowls with grated Gruyère, croûtons and rouille on the side.