The other day, in the Cooking Myths Thread, I came across an entry debunking the myth that without the rascasse which is found along the rocky shoreline of the coast off Marseilles, bouillabaisee cannot be made in the authentic manor. The poster further went on to say that rascasse was a bland fish and to wonder what it truly added to the soup.
Yesterday, while looking for a recipe in Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Cooking, I read her discussion of bouillabaisse. The introduction included as essential, in addition to the rascasse, the chapon (scorpion fish). Wolfert describes the purist’s idea of bouillabaisse and says that substitutions are futile and the imporation of rascasse and chapon too costly.
She then gives the following reasons (tongue-in-cheek) that you should make one of the other fish soups she includes in her book: Soupe de Poisson “l’Aigo-Sau” or Soupe de Poissons “Kathy Jelen” and know that you are serving a superior soup from Provence. If your guests are impolite enough to ask why you haven’t served an authentic bouillabaisse, you should list her reasons (or choose one or two) why one can NEVER make an authentic bouillabaisse in North America.
1. For a true bouillabaisse, people will tell you that it must be made in sight of the Mediterranean and, at the very least, cooked within 100 kilometres of Marseilles. There are even purists who proclaim that the water in the soup must be taken from the fishing grounds off Cacalaire. The fact that this air and these waters are now polluted is, to the fanatic gastronome, utterly beside the point.
2. For a true bouillabaisse, as I noted above, you need rascasse. A scorpion fish is hideous and you should touch it unless its poisonous fins have been removed. A variant, Heliconlenus dactylopterus, is found in North American waters but fishermen ususally toss it back.
3. For a true bouillabaisse you need a base broth made from at least a hundred tiny Mediterranean rockfish and clam juice simply won’t do.
4. Finally, no matter what you do there will be some silly snob who will say “This is a rather nice fish soup, my dear — but, of course, NOT a true bouilabaisse.”
This is going on my lonnnng list of “Why I Love Paula Wolfert”