It was like a Seinfeld episode before the sitcom existed (or GPS or cell phones for that matter).
The scene was Marseille, France, and the Americans were desperately trying to get to what had appeared to be a well situated hotel, a block or so from the train station. The route spiraled out of control, driving around and around, getting farther away from the destination with each nearly concentric circle. It was the essence of you-cannot-get-there-from-here.
The big reason for being there in the first place was the famed fish soup known as Bouillabaisse, and one restaurant in particular was known to be just a little bit better at it than its many competitors in this city renowned for the dish.
When we finally broke the one-way street code and got to a phone, we were greeted with the bad news that the restaurant was fully booked.
“So sorry, Madame.”
At that point, my MEGusta went into culinary overdrive and begged the guy for a table for two, telling him that we had come all the way from America for his bouillabaisse, please, please, please.
“You must be here in ten minutes.”
We were, and it was worth it, fishy perfection in a bowl, with all the accompaniments as pristine as the poached rockfish and shellfish floating in the broth the color of a perfect sunset. The rouille, a spicy sauce accent (also the French word for “rust”), was pungent but not overpowering. The aioli, freshly made mayonnaise with just enough raw garlic to be interesting, was the perfect enrichment, and, spread on perfectly toasted croutons, a reward in itself.
It’s not a real Bouillabaisse without all the little accoutrements, but this dish has lots of equally delicious relatives.
One variation is called bourride, very much like a bouillabaisse but thickened with egg yolk and pureed garlic, traditionally a pinch of saffron. Served with lovely poached fish of any/all kinds, it does not necessarily have the traditional accompaniments, but a little bowl of aioli on the side cannot hurt.
Another one is plain old fish soup (soupe de poissons). This can be just about anything but most traditionally is a strained broth made from fish too small to be worth salvaging the flesh, including flavorful crustaceans like thumb sized crabs. You’ll find bins of such odds and ends labeled Soupe de Poissons at markets in the South of France, and this make a great base for soup.
Historically, fishermen of little means lived from the sea, selling their larger catch and making a nutritious potage from what we might call “trash fish”, perfectly edible and delicious, just really bony or otherwise inconvenient for the usual purposes. And the cook can add garnishes such as pasta or other goodies that are on hand in the pantry, or even chunks of meatier fish or shellfish.
Smart cooks save odds and ends like shrimp and lobster shells in the freezer until reaching critical mass, enough to make a pot of shellfish stock, and this becomes the base for many a happy soup dinner chez myMEGusta!