You can't go to Marseille without eating a bouillabaisse. But first read our ultimate guide to the rich and complex fish stew which the city invented and has made its own: what it is, where to eat the best bouillabaisse or to learn how to cook it and how some of the city's top chefs are revolutionising this classic dish.
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A Thumbnail History
According to some, bouillabaisse was brought to Marseille by the Ancient Greeks in 600 BC, though many Marseillais prefer the more colourful myth that it was the soup made by the Roman goddess Venus to send her husband, Vulcan, to sleep so that she could pursue her love affair with Mars.
In reality bouillabaisse started life as a simple fishermen's stew made from the leftovers of the catch they weren't able to sell, generally shellfish and rockfish too bony to serve in restaurants.
These would be cooked in a pot of sea water on a wood fire and seasoned with garlic, fennel and (after these were introduced to Europe from South America in the 16th century) tomatoes.
In the 19th century, as Marseille became more prosperous, the recipe was refined by restaurants and middle-class housewives. Saffron was introduced and fish stock substituted for sea water.
Today various types of fish soups and stews are found all around the Mediterranean, but what sets bouillabaisse apart are the provençal herbs and spices, the flavour of the bony local fish and the way it is served (see below).
What's in a name? Bouillabaisse (pronounced boo-ee-yah-bess) has been attributed, for reasons which remain obscure and which it's probably best not to ponder, to the figure of an abbess who had a boil.
A more likely explanation is that it refers to the preparation method. The broth must come to the boil (bouillir) then, each time it does, the heat must be lowered (abaissé). 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 24 or sometimes even 48 hours in advance.
The Bouillabaisse Charter
Most restaurants on the Old Port offer bouillabaisse, but the quality varies widely. It's easy to find a cheap bouillabaisse in Marseille but you're unlikely to be served the genuine article.
In 1980 a "Bouillabaisse Charter" was drawn up by a group of a dozen or so local restaurateurs who were convinced the tradition was becoming debased by these tourist traps (and were very possibly in search of a marketing gimmick themselves).
The Marseille signatories included Le Caribou, Chez Caruso, Le Miramar, Chez Fonfon, L'Epuisette, Peron and Le Rhul.
Since then the inner circle has gradually expanded and now embraces members in Cassis, Avignon, Paris, Tunisia and even landlocked Switzerland.
The charter begins, rather splendidly, "Il n'est pas possible de normaliser la cuisine" - "It's not possible to normalise cooking."
Without being too prescriptive, it states that the recipe for bouillabaisse should include at least four of the following types of fish:rascasse (rockfish or scorpion fish), araignée (weever or spider crab), galinette/rouget grondin (red mullet), fielas/congre (conger eel) and chapon/scorpène (red scorpion fish).
Optional extras: Saint Pierre (John Dory), bauroie/ lotte (monkfish), langouste (crayfish) and cigale de mer, which is not one of those "land" cigales or cicadas which squawk in trees all summer long, but a lobster-like crustacean.
Among the other ingredients should be onions, tomatoes, potatoes, fennel, parsley, bouquet garni, garlic, olive oil and saffron. The Miramar's recipe adds a healthy slug of pastis just before serving. Click here to read more about this, and cooking with pastis.
The bouillabaisse comes in two courses (the demonstration picture, above right, shows them served both together).
First is the broth, accompanied by croutons, which you rub with a clove of whole garlic and spread with rouille, a bright orange mayonnaise flavoured with saffron, cayenne and more garlic (rouille means, literally, "rust").
The second course is the fish themselves, which should be presented on a platter whole at the table and cut and filleted in front of the diners.
Where to Learn How to Cook Bouillabaisse
One of the original Charter signatories, the Miramar is closely identified with bouillabaisse - in fact the Miramar Restaurant's website is www.bouillabaisse.com.
The restaurant also runs half-day courses on the third Thursday of every month. Participants are taken out shopping for fish at the daily market on the quai des Belges (pictured above left), before preparing the bouillabaisse and, of course, eating it.
The whole session lasts from 9.30am to 2.30pm and is available (on demand) in English, Japanese and Chinese. You'll need to book ahead, as classes are limited to eight people. Reservations on the Marseille Tourist Office website or at the Tourist Office itself at 11 la Canebière.
Where to Eat Bouillabaisse
The somewhat stuffy Miramar is convenient if you want to stay on the Old Port. However, if you're 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 (pictured right), where the cuisine is equalled by the view.
Also in the Vallon, though pricier, is the Michelin-starred L'Epuisette, Even further along the coast, at Montredon, Chez Aldo, also in a magnificent setting, is another local favourite.
For a real treat, take a trip out of town to eat bouillabaisse in one of the calanques. Recommended: Le Château in the Calanque de Sormiou.
Some Marseillais even swear that the best bouillabaisse in the area is to be eaten in Cassis, at Chez Gilbert (also a signatory of the Bouillabaisse Charter), 19 quai des Baux, 13260 Cassis. Tel (+33) 4 42 01 71 36. Here too, the location is lovely: right on the Cassis harbourfront.
Advance reservation is essential for all these restaurants.
Over the last few years, some of Marseille's top chefs have risen to the challenge of bouillabaisse and come up with some strange and surprising solutions.
At Une Table, au Sud, the Michelin-starred chef Lionel Lévy, who hails from Toulouse in the south-west of France, has said he felt intimidated when it came to making this quintessentially Marseillais dish.
But he still managed to bring an irreverent touch to his deconstructed "milkshake bouillabaisse," pictured below left, a sort of foamy fish cappuccino served in a glass with grilled filets of John Dory and rouille wrapped in slivers of potato on the side.
Across the other side of the Old Port, at L'Aromat, Sylvain Robert, another of Marseille's new wave of bold young chefs, serves an even more arch and postmodern "hamburger-bouillabaisse," if that isn't a contradiction in terms.
Here, the fish is presented in a home-baked bun, with the broth in a glass again, disguised as a "milk shake", complete with straw. The French fries are actually made of panisse or fried chickpea flour. It's on offer for an affordable 13€ (a "real" bouillabaisse will cost four or five times more).
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Le Petit Nice, Marseille's only three-star Michelin restaurant, is perched right on the rocky seafront along the Corniche JF Kennedy. Its chef, Gérald Passédat, is constantly revising and revamping his version of bouillabaisse.
His latest edition consists, Passédat explains, of three courses instead of the traditional two. The starter is a carpaccio of shellfish accompanied by goujons of girelle (wrasse). The next two course are served in the reverse of the usual order: a a simple platter of fish is followed by the rich, saffron-scented soup.
And yet another variant is proposed by Raymond Blanc, a Michelin-starred French chef based in Britain. On his 2012 BBC2 television show The Very Hungry Frenchman, Blanc demonstrated his recipe for a bouillabaisse terrine, which is also sometimes on the menu at his Oxford restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons.
The British author William Makepeace Thackeray, best known for his satirical novel Vanity Fair, lived for a while in Paris, where he became a huge fan of bouillabaisse - so much so that he wrote a delightful 11-stanza poem in its honour, The Ballad of Bouillabaisse. Here are the first two verses:
A Street there is in Paris famous,
For which no rhyme our language yields,
Rue Neuve des petits champs its name is—
The New Street of the Little Fields;
And there 's an inn, not rich and splendid,
But still in comfortable case—
The which in youth I oft attended,
To eat a bowl of Bouillabaisse.
This Bouillabaisse a noble dish is—
A sort of soup, or broth, or brew,
Or hotchpotch of all sorts of fishes,
That Greenwich never could outdo;
Green herbs, red peppers, mussels, saffern,
Soles, onions, garlic, roach, and dace;
All these you eat at Terrés tavern,
In that one dish of Bouillabaisse.