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Bouillabaisse. It’s one of those classic French dishes you just do not mess with. That you strive to perfect and benchmark against the greats down in Marseille. Getting this dish right is a true sign of your skill working with the very finest, freshest produce of the sea.
Traditionally, French fishermen would use the seafood they didn’t sell at the market that morning to make this fish stew. Today, it has become the kind of dish celebrated by those in the know. The fisherman’s fish supper, so to speak.
If we wanted to be strict about this, and make this dish authentically, we’d have to make several fish stocks, and blend them together towards the end of the cooking process – all very convoluted, long-winded, and, well, French. But what I see most often is the seafood being cooked in the same broth with different fish being added at different times.
Meaty white fish like sea bass and monkfish are the heroes here, along with some chunky pieces of langoustine, poached in a pre-made shrimp stock. Oily fish has no place in a bouillabaisse, no matter what kind of modern interpretation you’re trying to make. The oil leaves a slick on the finished dish and fails to blend properly into the stew. The trick to making this dish well is getting all the fish flavours to come together. When you eat it, they come through in waves. So save your mullet, salmon and mackerel for something else.
Never overlook the mussels either. The depth of saline flavour that comes from these little black-shelled beauties is incredible and they transform this bowl of food into something more than just the sum of its parts.
To be honest, the shellfish are just as important as the meaty white fish in my book. If you can get your hands on them, the orange roe of urchins melt into the stew base and work a special kind of magic – but that’s an inside tip.
Freshness and quality of your seafood is definitely the single most important thing when you set about making this dish. And you can’t let a single drop of the flavour go to waste, you need to harness it, hold on to it as best you can. So a lid on your pot is absolutely essential. It stops any of that fragrant, rich fish liquor from evaporating.
Because this meal comes from the Mediterranean, you can't possibly make it without using handfuls of fresh garlic, tomatoes and olive oil. Fennel, that classic fish partner, is also worked into the base of this stew, along with saffron, bay and some citrus peel. Take note of those, don't miss them out, and you’re on the way to nailing your bouillabaisse.
The reason I’m reminding you about bouillabaisse right now, is January. January is game time for this dish. It’s hearty, warming and perfect for mid-winter. January and February are traditionally great months for seafood on restaurant menus anyway, thanks to well intentioned New Year’s resolutions and people constantly wanting to shave off their Christmas weight. What bouillabaisse gives you that other fish dishes lack, is a constant, comforting warmth.