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France

Marseilles’ beloved bouillabaisse gets an update: burgers and milk shakes, anyone?

The recipe for the famous fish soup dates back centuries and in 1980 a Bouillabaisse Charter was created to define the dish’s ingredients. Marseilles’ chefs have worked around this and come up with some new takes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 December, 2017, 8:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 December, 2017, 8:45pm

Three-Michelin-star chef Gérald Passedat gazes over the Mediterranean from his Marseilles restaurant, Le Petit Nice. “Bouillabaisse was originally a poor dish for poor people,” he explains. “The ingredients come from there.” Passedet gestures to the lapping sea below his restaurant terrace, where you can find rascasse (scorpion fish), cigale de mer (slipper lobsters) and étrille (velvet crabs).

In centuries past, these hard-to-sell sea creatures were landed in the southern French city’s Vieux Port and boiled (bouilli in French) dockside in seawater. Larger fish were added, then the heat was lowered (abaissé). And with that, the humble “bouillabaisse” was born.

How times have changed. This simple fisherman’s stew is now dished up at Le Petit Nice as part of a 200 (US$240) bouillabaisse tasting menu. Travelling gourmand and television personality Anthony Bourdain recently flew in to make the traditional dish alongside Passedat. But it’s no longer just a classic dish: some top city chefs are serving bouillabaisse milk shake and hamburger de bouillabaisse. Akin to serving ketchup with foie gras, such creations have shocked locals.

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Global awareness of the bouillabaisse brand stems from strict codification of the dish nearly 40 years ago.

“The Bouillabaisse Charter was created in 1980 to stop bad chefs selling bad bouillabaisse,” says Passedat. “Some cooks were even importing frozen fish!”

The charter states that at least four types of local fish must be used, including scorpion fish, red mullet, conger eel and John Dory. The original signatory restaurants included Le Miramar, which now offers bouillabaisse cooking lessons in both English and Chinese.

After the bouillabaisse rules were set, experimentation started. The classic dish of local seafood simmered in an ocean potage, with boiled potato on the side and garlic croutons, became a framework that Marseilles chefs could push to the limit.

When I was a young chef I wanted to prove something, so I created the milk shake de bouillabaisse
Lionel Levy

“People travel from the world over to eat our home dish,” says Passedat. “The recipe changes you now see make headlines.”

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The following morning I explore the Vieux Port. The fish market where bouillabaisse was born is now sheltered by a vast mirrored ceiling designed by architects Foster + Partners. iPhone users snap the same rockfish ingredients that have been caught locally since Greeks settled here in 600BC. Fishing boats sail in, as superyachts sail out.

The InterContinental Marseille –Hotel Dieu, a 500-year-old hospital converted into a five-star hotel, offers panoramic vistas over the port’s terracotta rooftops. I meet head chef Lionel Levy, the creator of the bouillabaisse milk shake, in Alcyone, the hotel’s one-Michelin-star restaurant.

“The Bouillabaisse Charter is respected,” says Levy. “But the recipe is as ancient as the port city you see from our restaurant window: every family has their own version.” Levy has therefore taken to extremes the charter’s first line, which reads “It is not possible to normalise cooking”.

“When I was a young chef I wanted to prove something, so I created the milk shake de bouillabaisse,” he says.

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The multicoloured mousse I’m served scandalised Marseilles society. The base layer is a spicy rouille of olive oil, garlic, potato and saffron. Next a frothy section of eggs and mascarpone has been soda siphoned on top. A hunk of seared John Dory is placed upon this foamy bed, before the tall glass is topped with fish stock.

“You must eat all layers at once,” explains Levy, “so you feel the original dish’s pungent spice, then silky texture, then punchy flavour.” It’s a taste of France’s most innovative city in a glass.

As much as Levy champions the reinvention of bouillabaisse, he understands that it remains the city’s “must eat” (his favourite version is served at Chef Michel), and he still serves a version originelle of the dish on Alcyone’s daily €99 three-course menu.

The brand, if not the charter, is so powerful that Marseilles’ Tourism Board invites foodie Instagrammers to eat the dish and promote the city’s culinary roots. Could the recipe evolve beyond its age-old home? “If a Chinese chef in Hong Kong creates bouillabaisse with local rockfish and softshell crab, that is very interesting, as dishes have to evolve,” says Levy. “I’m not sure if they’d produce bouillabaisse but it’s something I’d love to try.”

Back across the Vieux Port, young chef Sylvain Robert says the current experimentation with bouillabaisse is a facet of Marseilles’ inventive food scene. At his gourmet restaurant L’Aromat, where lunchtime set menus cost€22 including wine, he’s sailing even closer to the wind.

“Twenty years ago Marseilles food was bouillabaisse and pizza. Now the city has exploded into oriental patisserie, fresh sardine shops and organic ice creameries like Ego. There are even communal tapas tables like Marché St-Victor.”

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For Robert, his now infamous hamburger de bouillabaisse is emblematic of a culinary city in flux.

The 15 starter looks fabulous. It is presented like a tasting menu course, with a shot glass filled with glossy fish soup, plus a paper cone of panisse chips made from chickpea flour, an everyday ingredient in Provence. A chunk of John Dory is placed between tomatoes and rouille, then sandwiched between toasted bread.

It’s Marseilles’ immortal dish served in three triumphant mouthfuls – a Filet-O-Fish for royalty, in which high-quality ingredients conform to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Bouillabaisse Charter.

“Some older Marseilles people were shocked,” says Robert. “However, I want my creations to amuse, educate and please. If not, why bother going to a restaurant?”

That said, one thing that bouillabaisse chefs young and old agree to respect is the price. “Good fish, oil and saffron aren’t cheap,” warns Robert. “If you pay 15 for bouillabaisse it won’t be good. Instead pay 60 at restaurant like L’Epuisette for food that memories are made of.”

Even three-Michelin-star chefs like Passedat have pushed the boat out. That evening I dine at his Restaurant Le Môle Passedat atop the Mucem Mediterranean history museum, along with Emmanuel Perrodin, Marseilles’ leading food historian.

Before us the twilight sea glitters with passenger ferries en route to Algeria, Tunisia, Italy and Morocco. “And below us,” chimes Perrodin, “are centuries-old artefacts that describe the infusion of flavours that make modern-day Marseilles.” Mucem’s exhibits include olive oil amphorae from Turkey and wine jars from the Adriatic Sea.

I want my creations to amuse, educate and please. If not, why bother going to a restaurant?
Sylvain Robert

Passedat’s culinary deconstruction of bouillabaisse costs 38, and is also served as part of the restaurant’s amazing 75 set dinner menu. It’s outrageously photogenic, red mullet and monkfish scalpel-sliced into triangles of ozone-fresh flesh. There’s a copper pot of mussels. Langoustines are scattered into a vast bowl, followed by lashings of fish soup over the entire ensemble.

Perrodin enjoys the flavours, and tastes a wider trend. “Bouillabaisse has evolved with the city,” he explains. “First the Ancient Greeks brought their olive oil. Then Spanish brought saffron, before tomatoes from the New World completed the dish in the 18th century.”

The most exciting question is what Marseilles’ most famous dish will evolve into next.

Le Petit Nice

17 Rue des Braves, Marseilles, +33 (0)4 91 59 25 92, passedat.fr

Restaurant Le Môle Passedat

Mucem, 1 Esplanade du J4, Marseilles, +33 (0)4 91 19 17 80

Alcyone

InterContinental Marseille – Hotel Dieu

1 Place Daviel, Marseilles, tel: +33 (0)4 13 42 42 42

L’Aromat

49 Rue Sainte, Marseilles, tel: +33 (0)4 91 55 09 06, laromat.com

Where to stay: Sofitel’s Grand Hotel Beauvau Marseille (sofitel.com) has vintage rooms from 109. The sea view hotel was popular with food writer MFK Fisher, a close colleague of Julia Child, who has an excellent bouillabaisse recipe herself.

How to get there: British Airways, Air France/KLM, Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa fly between Hong Kong and Marseilles.