Monday, 15 March 2010

Bouillabaisse, Bermondsey, BSG in the back seat…

Alarmed by the ‘chaos without the skill’ segment in my last post, having identified it as a plummet in my kitchen confidence the ever-supportive BSG has suggested that I be the skipper in the galley for the next week and he be the pot-washer. He has vowed not to do the back-seat cooking that lends him his name - nay, not even to set a toe over the threshold to interfere. I feel rather like the stunned co-pilot who has just been given the cockpit controls after many voyages comfortably assisting the captain. I am pretty sure I remember being a competent hand in this realm before the BSG days. We’ll see I guess…

These past few weeks I have been haunted by Bouillabaisse. Well…perhaps haunted is the wrong word – implying a ghoul of a dish long-dead with our forebears, lost and buried with the ages. Au contraire - I think I mean to say courted; this sun-kissed, vibrant, fishy flirt is still very much alive, making eyes at me from almost every menu I’ve deliberated over. It all started when one threw a proverbial wink at me from its copper pan at Arbutus, beguiling me with its aromas as it wafted seductively past us to the next table. Thus far I have not succumbed to its advances, but this is not through a lack of desire; what can I say, Bouillabaisse, it’s not you with your sunny connotations and your promise of rich flavours, it’s me. Everywhere you appear, you seem to be adorned with some variety of shell-dwelling creature, a food family which has recently lost my trust…was it that bug that’s going round, or those Moules Marinières? Either way, I am not sure I can risk another bout with a bi-valve until I get an allergy test, and I wouldn’t want that kind of last dance with a dish I revere quite so much as this seaside soup…

bouillabaisse books

The shadow of the crustaceal threat hasn’t stopped me ogling it at other tables or furtively thumbing though culinary volumes to get my fix via the other senses, dreaming up Sliding Doors-style alternative scenarios where I am happily chomping my way through a rouille-topped crouton, spoon in hand, a steaming bowl of coral-hued broth before me. Having never set foot in the town, I think it is fair to say that I have not tasted un vrai Bouillabaisse in the Marsellais sense, but I have had many dishes of the same name and based around the same elements (fish, stock, olive oil, saffron) which have led me to believe that I’d be a fan. In his 1967 book The French at Table, Raymond Oliver, a chef and French gastronome devotes an entire chapter to the seafood stew – a whopping 20 pages – and still concludes with eight variations on the recipe; an attempt, it seems, to please everyone he’d interviewed during his research. According to the author, the people of Marseilles are fiercely proud of their dish and despite the main ingredients universally agreed upon, the recipe varies from household to household – everyone he meets purports to cooking it in their fishing hut, even though he is sure that many have never chopped an onion, and most don’t have a fishing hut, let alone fish. This is however, relatively unimportant – the dish is simply part of their cultural identity, reflecting their geography and sociology.

There it was again, flashing a bit of leg at me the other night, throwing me headlong me into yet another Mediterranean reverie (perhaps I am going mad due to the unusually long winter). I was meeting a friend in the Garrison on Bermondsey Street, a part of London hitherto unfamiliar to me. The legend above the door reads: The Garrison Public House, but if you’re thinking of going there for a pint, a packet of pork-scratchings and the football I’d think again. Though I suppose it would fall into the category of gastropub this is very much a restaurant in a pub’s shell. And very pleasant it is too, for we were two girls having a good supper and a chat and we were delighted with our surroundings. Candlelight flickers against pale sage and duck-egg blue clapboard, mismatched wallpaper and bounces off brass ship’s lanterns, enamelled jugs and bric-a-brac – the Swiss Family Robinson must have sent the owners their design brief in a bottle (with a bit of Farrow & Ball thrown in for good measure). We sat at the open mouth of the kitchen, on a sort of communal table which, as I was early and had a few minutes to wait, was a rather exciting place to be (amazingly, we didn’t smell too much like our food at the end of the night). We had crusty hunks of homemade bread and unsalted French butter, following up with hearty dishes of slow-cooked beef brisket stew and guinea fowl and mushrooms – just right to keep the edge off the chill outside. Apparently they also do rather a good breakfast too (I’ll have to return for this to confirm or deny, but the presence of a few jars of marmite on the condiment shelf is a good start in my book). Tomatoey-rich, savoury stew on buttery mash: it provided the perfect foil to these bitter early-March nights. I’ll be bounding back to Bermondsey one of these days I should think.


As bouillabaisse is not so much a dish but a political manifesto I’m not sure I want to offend anyone by even displaying a recipe here. After all my confusing and contradictory findings on this fishy favourite, it seems right to share Elizabeth David’s (largely humorous) take on even attempting it:

1) It is useless attempting to make a bouillabaisse away from the shores of the Mediterranean. All sorts of variations can be and are devised in other parts of the world, but it would be foolish to pretend that these have more than a remote relationship to the true bouillabaisse.

2) The fish must be spanking fresh from the sea, and of diverse kinds. The rascasse (a local rockfish) is essential, and the fish is always served with its head. If langouste is included, this is cut in half lengthways and served in its shell. Mussels, if part of the bouillabaisse, are likewise left in their shells.

3) Olive oil and saffron are equally essential.

4) Furious boiling, so that the olive oil and water (or the wine if you are a heretic) amalgamate, is another absolute essential of the success of the dish.

5) The Toulonnais sometimes add potatoes (a practice which appals a Marseillais). The potatoes are best cut (raw) into thin rounds and added at the same time as the soft fish.

6) A bouillabaisse is not intended to be a soup.


Yikes – a culinary minefield – I think I’ll just leave it to the experts, whoever they are…

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