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.

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