You cannot go to Marseille without eating a Bouillabaisse. You will find in this article an overview of the Bouillabaisse from its origin up to now when top chefs try to revolution this classic dish. We will share with you where to eat the best ones.
According to some, bouillabaisse was brought to Marseille by the Ancient Greeks in 600 B.C.
However people from Marseille, called Marseillais, love talking about a more colorful myth. The Roman goddess Venus made the soup to send her husband, Vulcan, to sleep so that she could pursue her love affair with Mars.
In fact, Bouillabaisse started as a simple fishermen's stew made from the leftovers they were not able to sell. It was composed with shellfish and rockfish. These would be cooked in a pot of seawater on a wood fire and seasoned with garlic, fennel and tomatoes.
In the 19th century, as Marseille became more prosperous, the recipe was refined by chefs and housewives. Spice like saffron was introduced and fish stock substituted for seawater.
Today various types of fish soups and stews are found all around the Mediterranean. What set the Bouillabaisse apart from the others are the Provençal herbs, spices, the flavor, the bony local fish and the way it is served.
The name Bouillabaisse finds its origin in the preparation method. The broth must come to the boil (bouillir) then, each time it does, the heat must be lowered (abaissé), and so: Bouillabaisse.
The different types of fish are added one by one depending on their individual cooking time. Because the best bouillabaisse takes time to prepare and requires fresh (not frozen) ingredients, many restaurants will require you to order it in advance, and will accept bookings for at least 4 persons.
Most restaurants on the Old Port of Marseille offer bouillabaisse, but quality varies widely and you're unlikely to be served the genuine article. So, in 1980 a "Bouillabaisse Charter" was drawn up by a group of restaurants who were convinced the tradition was becoming debased by these tourist traps.
The Restaurants which signed for this label are: Le Caribou, Le Rhul, Chez Caruso, Chez Fonfon, Le Miramar, L'Epuisette and Peron. You can definitely book a table there with confidence.
Since then, the circle has gradually expanded and now embraces members in Cassis, Avignon, Paris, even in Tunisia and Switzerland where chefs, originally from Marseille, decided to export this traditional dish.
The recipe for bouillabaisse should include at least four of the following types of fishes:
- Rascasse (Rockfish or Scorpion fish)
- Araignée (Weever or Spider crab)
- Galinette/Rouget (Red mullet)
- Fielas/Congre (Conger eel)
- Chapon/Scorpène (Red scorpion fish).
Among the other ingredients should be onions, tomatoes, potatoes, fennel, parsley, garlic, olive oil and saffron.
The bouillabaisse is served in two dishes.
The first one is the broth accompanied with croutons that you rub with a clove of garlic and spread with rouille. The Rouille is a bright orange mayonnaise flavoured with saffron, cayenne and garlic, it literally means "rust".
The second dish is the fish themselves. The fishes are presented on a platter whole at the table and filleted in front of the guests.
Where to eat Bouillabaisse
The Miramar is convenient if you want to stay around the Vieux Port (Old Port) of Marseille. The Miramar's recipe adds a healthy slug of pastis just before serving. Pastis is the local drink in Marseille. We will write a dedicated article on this subject which belongs to the Provencal heritage.
By the way the Miramar also offers a regular Bouillabaisse cooking course. If you want to learn how to cook a real Bouillabaisse, check with the Marseille Tourist Office and Miramar restaurant for details.
At the North end of the Old Port, overlooking the Catalans beach is another bouillabaisse institution, Chez Michel, a venerable fish restaurant dating back to 1946.
However, if you are prepared to take a short taxi or bus ride along the Corniche, the one restaurant consistently recommended by Marseillais is Chez Fonfon in the beautiful Vallon des Auffes, where the quality equals the view from the Vallon.
The Michelin-starred restaurant L'Epuisette is also at the Vallon des Auffes, pricier though.
If you have plenty of time on your hands, try the spectacular La Baie des Singes in Les Goudes.
For an adventure you can go for a walk in the Calanques (see our article of November 2016 talking about Cassis and its Calanques) and eat bouillabaisse at Le Château in the Calanque of Sormiou. To conclude your meal you will be able to taste a Calisson ice cream for dessert, a pure delight.