Friday, November 19, 2010

The Story Behind Bouillabaisse

"Soup and fish explain half the emotions of human life." - Sydney Smith

Bouillabaisse enthusiasts will travel far and wide to get an authentic serving of the traditional fish stew. The French Quarters of New Orleans and the five-star restaurants of New York serve up this savory dish nightly, using recipes that reach far back in history. However, if you are able to make it across the country for a bowl of stew this weekend, your other option would be to cook some for yourself. At Kanaloa we have fish, both from the Mediterranean and local, which are perfect for a hot and tasty fish stew. We have ready-made fish stock seasoned so delightfully with saffron and leeks it would make any French chef proud. However, depending on the source, the emergence of bouillabaisse into cultural cuisine may not have derived from the French. Read on to learn more about how this dish is infused with cultural history.

The origins of bouillabaisse and chowder are somewhat mysterious. Recipes centuries old can be found for either dish. However the true origins of these soups go back before the written record. One thing is certain, in the years after the 1600’s or the age of sail, chowder and bouillabaisse traveled widely and many different cultures and peoples influenced the dishes that we recognize today.

Bouillabaisse may have come from Italians or it may have come from Greeks or Phoenicians, depending on whom you talk to. The Greeks boast ancient but vague references to fish stews in their literature. The Phoenicians were a sea-faring people who colonized a settlement near modern day Marseille, which is considered to be the home of bouillabaisse. And as for their own claims, the Italians have a similar dish called “brodetto”. No one has a case that is entirely convincing

Wherever bouillabaisse may have come from, its home is most certainly in France. Bouillabaisse was perfected by French fishermen and has become a distinctly French dish. This is the point which the signing members of the Marseille Charter wished to make resoundingly clear. In 1980, eleven restaurateurs drafted a document outlining the minimum requirements of a bouillabaisse. According to the Marseille Charter an authentic bouillabaisse must consist of at least four of the following fish: Scorpion fish, White scorpion fish, Red mullet, Skate, Conger eel, or John Dory. It should also include the following: saffron, olive oil, garlic, onions, fennel, parsley, and tomatoes.

The signatories of this charter were all chefs and restaurant owners working out of the port of Marseille. They were gourmands who took their fish stews very seriously. They were fed up with counterfeit bouillabaisse and wrote the charter in response to chefs in other regions of France who were taking free license with dishes they presumed to pass off as the famous stew. The charter set out to answer such question as to whether a bouillabaisse could include such ingredients as lobster (yes) other shellfish (yes) potatoes (yes) and whether one could skip the scorpion fish (no!) or rouille, a garlicky red pepper paste (no!).

The Marseille Charter is still an active document. There are even restaurants in the U.S. which make a point of adhering to its guidelines. Anyone who is curious to try an “authentic” bouillabaisse stateside, can find one here.

Whatever your take on bouillabaisse may be, we are here to help you along the way. Come in to our retail counter and take your pick of seafood from a wide array of choices. The dish you make might be Phoenician, Greek, Italian, or French, but it is certain to be a hit with your family.

Holiday Specials!

Remember to place your order one week in advance!

  • Whole Dungeness Crab – Cooked, Cracked, and Cleaned....Market Price
  • Bouillabaisse Broth – Add your own seafood for this traditional fish stew....$12.95 per quart
  • Gravlox – Thinly sliced house cured salmon with dill....$10.95 per 4oz
  • Crab Cakes....$7.95 each
  • Whole natural Salmon, boneless butterfly (for stuffing)....$12.95 per pound (sold in whole fish increments)
  • Natural Salmon Pocket stuffed with crab meat....$12.95 each

Party Platters

  • Sashimi Platter, includes two pounds of Kanaloa sushi grade fish (ahi, albacore, and izumidai)....$144.95
  • Jumbo Shrimp Platter, homemade cocktail sauce with two pounds of jumbo shrimp....$71.95
  • Smoked Salmon Platter, includes Scottish lox, capers, onions, and dill sauce....$107.95

A Simple Rouille Recipe

Bouillabaisse is traditionally served in two courses. First, only the broth is used. It is poured into bowls over pieces of toasted bread which have a condiment called “rouille” spread over them. Rouille is a garlicky red-pepper paste, and according to the Marseille charter is an essential component to a bouillabaisse. For the second course, the fish is served by itself on a platter.

Whether you want to use two steps or not, fresh bread is always a great side dish with a bouillabaisse. It is fantastic for sopping up the flavorful broth.

If you would like to try traditional rouille with your stew, the following recipe is delicious and easy to prepare:


1 roasted and peeled red bell pepper

1 roasted hot red chili pepper or ground cayenne pepper to taste

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 small peeled garlic clove

1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs or finely chopped almonds

1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves

Fine sea salt, about 1/2 teaspoon or to taste

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Puree everything except for the olive oil in a food processor until smooth. Slowly add the olive oil while processing to form a paste.

Spread over toasted, rustic bread and serve on the side of a bowl of bouillabaisse.

Chowder, A Rich History

Some believe it was first cooked by the French and that its name comes from “chauderie”. Others believe it came from English fishermen and the name is derived from the Old English word “jowter” which meant “fish peddler” or “mounted peddler of fish.” Still another theory is that chowder was developed out of fishing camps in the Americas with input from Micmac Indians.

One point most people can agree upon is that chowder was a dish that evolved on the open ocean. It was shaped by common ingredients and cooking practices aboard sailing and fishing ships of different nationalities. Sailors were among the first and greatest disciples of chowder.

Early sailing vessels had very limited pantries. Their stores usually did not consist of much more than hard tack (a simple type of cracker), salted pork, salted fish, onions, and root vegetables. In an effort both to cook in rough weather conditions and make these ingredients more appealing, shipboard fare was often boiled down into stews. These concoctions were early versions of chowder. They were not called such at first, but instead went by such varied names as Loblolly, Lobscouse, Sea Pie (there were probably layers of ship’s biscuits in this one), and Burgoo. Eventually the name chowder won out. There are references to it by the early 1700’s, and the term was common in the English language by 1751. A popular novel of the time even featured a small dog with the name “chowder.”

It was in the 1850’s that chowder reached the height of its popularity in the U.S. In the summertime, families held “chowder parties” on the beach, cooking fish they caught in giant kettles on the shore. At church dinners, fairs, and political rallies, huge vats of chowder were often served as part of the festivities.

Around the turn of the century, the first recipe describing a tomato based chowder, or a Manhattan Chowder, was published. This development would ultimately pit two different sides of chowder enthusiasts against one another in a grudging rivalry. While the rest of the country is probably indifferent to the controversy (since both versions really are quite delicious) in the northeast it is taken fairly seriously, as are most matters of regional pride. Tomato chowders are popular south of Rhode Island, while milk based chowders are found to the north. In 1939, an assemblyman named Seeder even introduced into Maine Legislature a bill to make tomato clam chowder illegal in the state.