Bouillabaisse a typical French dishSay Marseille to anyone in France and the chances are they’ll immediately think of the city’s most famous dish, Bouillabaisse. Although the mere mention of the word sets all French mouths watering, this fish stew actually started life as a pauper’s dish. You’d hardly know it now when the traditional recipe is fiercely defended in the Bouillabaisse Charter and every Marseilleise family makes the ‘best’ version. In this blog post, we look at its origins – from humble to hallowed – and share our favourite takes on this iconic French dish.

Historians have traced the origins of the Bouillabaisse back to the Greeks who arrived on the French Mediterranean coast in the 7th century BC and founded the port city of Marseille. The first takes on the dish were essentially a fish soup made from sea water and scraps of fish, and was a staple in fishermen’s families who used the unsold pieces of fish from their catch of the day.

The Bouillabaisse reached the rest of France in the 18th century when it became a regular feature on the menu at the Parisian restaurant, Frères Provençaux. Alexandre Dumas included it in his famous French recipe book, Le Grand Dictionnaire de la Cuisine, published in 1873 and the rest is, as they say, histoire.

The dish’s unusual name is thought to come from the cooking method – the stew must be brought to the boil (bouiller in French) and the heat then quickly lowered (baisser in French).

Nowadays, Bouillabaisse is a must-try for anyone visiting Marseille and the Provence region and countless restaurants serve their version of the dish. Some chefs, however, staunchly defend the traditional way of making the stew to the extent that in 1980, several city restaurateurs got together and drew up the Bouillabaisse Charter, a document that sets down the ingredients and recipe.

Essential ingredients in a Bouillabaisse

The base of any Bouillabaisse is fish and seafood, particularly those found off the rocky cliffs (known as calanques) on the Marseille coast. The fish caught here is typically small and live in rock pools. Traditionalists claim that the real Bouillabaisse has to include scorpion fish (rascasse), the most important ingredient of all and the one that gives the dish its characteristic red colour. But this spiky orange fish isn’t always available (and is pricey) so a more relaxed approach allows other fish such as moray, red mullet, John Dory and weever fish. Many Marseille restaurants serve their version with clams, crab or, most expensive of all, lobster.

Other essential ingredients include potatoes, onions, fennel and saffron plus a dash of pastis, the French liquorice-tasting liqueur. Some chefs also add carrots, tomatoes and peas.

Bouillabaisse is served with croutons, usually infused with garlic, and rouille, a traditional Provençal sauce. This is made with garlic, breadcrumbs and olive oil, and has a similar consistency to aioli sauce.

Serving the Bouillabaisse

According to traditionalists, this dish should be eaten in two courses. To start with, you eat the soup, essentially the liquid the Bouillabaisse is cooked in. You then move onto the second course that consists of the fish, potatoes, garlic croutons and the rouille. The all-in-one option has, however, become very popular and in many restaurants you choose to eat it in two courses or as a single dish.

Three takes on Bouillabaisse

The traditional take

Le Miramar restaurant in the Old Port in Marseille serves Bouillabaisse traditional style, so traditional in fact that the restaurant was one of the devisers of the 1980 Charter. Chef Christian Buffa and his team use a selection of rockfish for their recipe with weever fish, red mullet and moray as staples. The dish comes with tomatoes, saffron and a good splash of pastis.

You can learn to cook Bouillabaisse Miramar-style every third Thursday of the month (book at the Marseille Tourist Office or via the website). The class starts at 9.30 and finishes at 2 when you sit down to try your attempt at this iconic dish.

12 Quai du Port.
Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner.

The deconstructed take

For a completely modern version, visit Une Table, au Sud where local chef Ludovic Turac serves his Bouillabaisse in pieces. His recipe broadly follows traditional lines – rockfish, fennel and pastis form the base – but Turac adds some key differences.

For a start, he puts an orange into the water and then he adds a weever fish fillet and potato bite to the broth. These form the main part of the dish and are served along with a long slice of focaccia (infused with squid ink and thickly spread with rouille) in the fish stock.

Turac’s unusual interpretations of Bouillabaisse and other typical Provençal dishes earned him a Michelin star in 2015.

2 Quai du Port.
Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday lunch.

The British take

British chef Jamie Oliver has tried his hand at most dishes and Bouillabaisse is no exception. His version, called Fabulous Fish Stew, draws heavily on traditional ingredients and method, but comes with some very different touches.

Oliver’s rouille becomes a saffron mayonnaise sauce and his take on Bouillabaisse has a base of mussels and clams with the fish almost taking a back seat. He uses fennel but basil too makes an appearance. And finally, this is a recipe without croutons – the stew is served over a slice of toasted bread at the bottom of the bowl.

So if you’re not near Marseille at least you can try this fabulous dish at home. Let us know how you get on.