Sunday, 27 December 2015


I have two favourite literary accounts of the dish.

First, from the neglected children's book, Street Fair in such two American children, John and Anna, accidentally end up having to fend for themselves in the Riviera:

"The plates were full of mustard-coloured soup, and islands of various shapes rose out of the soup.

The first thing she took out of the soup was a kind of fish, and the next thing was another kind of fish, and the next thing was a tiny clam still in its blue shell.

'Would you say it was soup with fish, or fish with soup?'"

James Bond travels to Marseilles in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and asks his driver about the famous soup:

"Bond said, 'Now tell me, is the bouillabaisse chez Guido always as good?'

'It is passable,' said Marius. 'But this is a dish that is dead, gone. There is no more true bouillabaisse, because there is no more fish in the Mediterranean. For the bouillabaisse, you must have the rascasse, the tender flesh of the scorpion fish. Today they just use hunks of morue. The saffron and the garlic, they are always the same. But you could eat pieces of a woman soaked in those and it would be good. Go to any of the little places down by the harbour. Eat the plat du jour and drink the vin du Cassis that they give you. It will fill your stomach as well as it fills the fishermen's. The toilette will be filthy. What does that matter? You are a man. You can walk up the Canebiere and do it at the Noailles for nothing after lunch.'"

The first time I heard of Bouillabaisse was when my mother described it and said that fishermen had a regular prank they played on guests which was to put an excessive amount of salt into a ladleful of the soup and solemnly pass it round. The guests would be too polite to say anything and eventually one of the fishermen would say, "Perhaps a little too much salt", whereupon the ladleful would be discarded and the cork from the bottle of wind placed in the cauldron of soup. After being well fed, the guests would leave convinced that the cork had the property of desalinating the soup. My mother once tried the trick on my father; my brother and I were in on the plot. My father was not amused.

The first time I ate it in a restaurant was in St Tropez and I was disappointed: the broth was served separately to the fish, apparently more authentically than the description in Street Fair.

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