About 25 years ago I went to the South of France. Up to then, I hadn’t been overseas much (Mablethorpe in the east of England was abroad to me) and being brought up in a single parent family, my taste in food had been defined by what we could afford – mince and ‘tatties, liver and onions, mash potato with an egg on top, accompanied with vegetables boiled to within an inch of their life. I thought it was normal for carrots be thin, see through and floppy.
Boil in the bag
It was also a time of ultra-convenience; microwaves, tinned meals, dehydrated pot noodles and frozen foods were commonplace. Up to that point my seafood experience was based on soggy fish and chips or boil-in-the-bag fish in parsley sauce. Perfectly square, steaming hot, compressed white rubbery fish accompanied by a gloopy, off-white and green gluey paste. Every Tuesday, emergency wards up and down England were filled with mums being treated for third degree burns caused by removing fish and sauce from a piping hot bag. I think they were banned in 1983 on the grounds of safety.
My holiday to the South of France changed all that. I was there with my then girlfriend. I thought she was sophisticated. She could speak French (well, more than me). She understood a lot about French food (I tried Brie for the first time at her parents) and she could find her way round French grape varieties (her sister was a wine merchant). We went out for dinner, in France, to a French restaurant where everyone spoke French. Everyone looked so glamorous and chic. I felt so out of place.
Fruit for starters
She ordered Fruits de Mer. I thought fruit for starters was a bit odd, but I reckoned I could handle it. And then out of nowhere a waiter carried towards us a towering pyramid of freshly caught seafood and delicately positioned it in the centre of our table. The seafood sat up, proud as punch.
With trepidation that I tackled mussels, clams, oysters (oh my gosh), prawns and crab. I was working with implements that were alien to me – teeny, tiny forks and large hefty nutcrackers. There was seafood and shells going everywhere, but I had never tasted anything so sexy, unfussy and natural. From that moment on I was hooked (pardon the pun).
My passion for seafood continued and about 10 years ago I bought a book by Rick Stein. It’s simply called Seafood. Every weekend I would flick through the pages and I every now and then cook a few things, but nothing too complicated. Without fail I’d always ended up on the Bouillabaisse recipe. I wanted to make it, but it looked so daunting. The ingredient list takes up one page and the instructions go over more. Over time, instead of tackling it head on, I read up on it. The history (it dates back to 600BC and even appears in Greek mythology); the wars fought over who is the rightful owner of the recipe; the must have ingredients such as scorpion fish; and the spicy mayonnaise-like rouille. All this made the recipe a bridge too far. How could I ever do this dish justice?
I found every excuse not to make it. Seafood too expensive; always cock up mayonnaise; don’t have time; don’t have any Pernod; don’t have saffron; can’t make it for two people; can’t be arsed. But I couldn’t let it go. Something that started as a simple pique of interest soon became a huge psychological barrier. Cooking a Bouillabaisse signified something much more than cooking a recipe.
I decided enough was enough. Having two young kids, it’s hard to devote half a day to cooking without feeling guilty or being able to fully concentrate. But my upcoming birthday was a perfect opportunity because the present I always ask for is time – time to cook, time to sit in a coffee shop and read a paper, time for a drink, time for a bike ride, or time to visit David Jones food hall.
Time is of the essence
So this was it, my birthday, and an opportunity to tackle a demon that had been tattooed on the inside of my forehead for so long. I didn’t like my luck in finding scorpion fish outside France, but Mr Stein is more flexible than history and very kindly suggests alternative seafood. So I went for mussels, clams, and an assortment of fish including bream, snapper and mackerel. I bought the vegetables – onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, celery, fennel, garlic and oranges. I bought French bread for croutons. I had the spices in the cupboard. I already had fish stock made up in the freezer normally used for Paella. I had saffron for the same reason. And the herbs I had growing in the garden. I was ready to go. Late afternoon, on my birthday, I opened a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to calm the nerves and tackled the recipe with gusto.
The glorious moment
Three hours later it was on the table in all its glory; a steaming hot bowl of seafood in a tasty broth, with garlic croutons, spicy mayonnaise and finished with proper, real, fresh and vibrant green parsley.
And you know what? It wasn’t as hard as I had made it out in my head. Yes it was challenging, but my god, it was worth it. Sure the Rouille was a bit tricky, but teamwork helps with managing the slow pouring of the oil and whisking at the same time. There’s lots of chopping of vegetables and skinning of tomatoes. And the making of the broth is made much easier if you have some pre-prepared fish stock. None of the steps are hard, but together they make a formidable recipe.
But I had cracked it. Was my rendition perfect? Nope. Did it remind me of the Mediterranean? Oh yes. Did it banish the Bouillabaisse demons? Yes it did, finally. And I’m much happier for it.
That plate of sexy food on the table in my house was a million miles away from boil in the bag with parsley sauce. And maybe that’s what this all meant – a symbol of how far I’d come.
Rick Stein’s Bouillabaisse recipe
4kg of any of the following fish: wrasse, dogfish, black bream, red bream, monkfish, cod or hake, weever, trigger fish, gurnard, red mullet, bass, John Dory, bream, skate, conger eel, grey mullet – the more variety the better
3 medium onions, roughly chopped
1lb/450g tomatoes, peeled and chopped, reserving the skins
3 pints/1.7 litres water
3fl oz/90ml olive oil
12 thin slices of French bread
white of a large leek, roughly chopped
2 sticks of celery, thinly sliced
1 large bulb fennel, thinly sliced
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
freshly ground black pepper
2in/5cm piece of orange peel
1 level teaspoon saffron
1 sprig of thyme
2 bay leaves
1lb/450g mussels, washed and scraped clean of barnacles, with beards pulled out
1/2lb/225g shellfish: slices of lobster or crayfish, or langoustine or prawns in the shell
1 teaspoon of chopped fennel herb, with a few leaves of thyme, to sprinkle over the cooked fish
For the rouille:
20z/60g dry bread soaked in fish stock (see below)
6 cloves garlic
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons/90ml harissa (spicy chilli sauce available from good continental food shops)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 pint/450ml olive oil
Fillet all the fish except the skate (if you are using it). Cut the fillets so that they are all about the same size.
To make the stock: put one third of the onions in the bottom of a large pan with the tomato skins. Place all the fish trimmings on top and add the water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Strain the stock.
Make the rouille by putting all the ingredients for it in a food processor and blending. Then pour in the oil as for making mayonnaise.
Fry the French bread in a little olive oil till light gold colour. Rub with garlic and keep warm.
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan large enough to hold all the fish and stock. Soften the rest of the onions, leek, celery, fennel and garlic. Season with black pepper. Add the orange peel, tomatoes, saffron, thyme, bay leaves and fish stock and bring to the boil, whisking as it comes to the boil to aid the emulsion of oil and stock.
Now add the fish, putting the firmer-fleshed fish like conger eel, dogfish and skate in first. Add the softer fish and mussels a couple of minutes later. Boil only till the fish is just cooked (about 5 minutes).
Add the shellfish and boil for a further half minute. Strain the soup through a colander and place all the fish, mussels, shellfish and vegetables in a large warm dish. The mussels and shellfish should be left in the shell. Scatter with the chopped fennel and thyme and put the croutons on top.
Return the strained soup to the saucepan and test for seasoning. Boil the soup very vigorously for one more minute, whisking as you do to liaise oil and water. Now pour some of the soup over the fish and croutons. Serve the rest in a warm tureen. I think the nicest way to eat the bouillabaisse is to spoon both fish and soup into a soup bowl and stir in a dollop of rouille; but you can if you like treat the fish and soup as two separate courses. Certainly the fish cooked this way, in stock rather than water, will not have lost all its flavour to the soup.