“For the best and most interesting flavor, pick six or more varieties of fish, which is why a bouillabaisse is ideally made for at least six people.” – Julia Child
A favorite dish of fishmongers in Marseille, bouillabaisse translates roughly as “when it boils, bring it down.” As with all regional specialties, there are variations but also essential elements to this southern French staple.
Bouillabaisse does not have Protected Geographical Status (as Champagne or Harris Tweed) but in 1980 a group of chefs created La Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise (The Marseillaise Bouillabaisse Charter) to describe best practices. Multiple types of bony fish should be used (e.g. red snapper, striped bass, grouper, halibut or cod), but especially Mediterranean varieties including sea bream, conger eel, John Dory, red scorpion fish, turbot, monkfish, mullet or hake. Shellfish such as mussels or crab, plus fennel, saffron, and tomatoes are thrown in for good measure. Up to seven types of fish can go in the soup, and herbes de Provence are a must – or so says my godmother who lives in Aixe. (Note: U.S. market-specific “herbes de Provence” has lavender added to the mix and is therefore not suitable for use here. Also: always listen to your French godmother.)
Finally, bouillabaisse is served in rather a distinct way: garlic in the form of an aioli or rouille is spread on toast (croûtes) and eaten alongside the dish, or often placed at the bottom of the bowl with the broth then ladled on top. As per the Charter, the fish should come in a second bowl, perhaps as a way for diners to see the impressive selection.
NEW ENGLAND CLAM CHOWDER
“All would at last land and have a chowder on the Cape.” – Henry David Thoreau
In 19th-century New England, chowder made with fish rather than clams was more common due to the almighty cod stocks. (The name chowder is a corrupted form of chaudière, French for cauldron.) Henry David Thoreau almost burned down his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, while attempting to cook the thick soup over a treestump fire on a windy day. (Many attribute this wood burning epsiode as sparking his conservationist beliefs outlined in Walden.) But here we’ll focus on the region’s now famous clam chowder.
Fish soups are not especially delicate. They are salty and often spiced up with black pepper. Chowder also just happens to be the perfect vessel for smoky bacon. And, of course, the dish has strong seafaring connotations. Clam chowder features early in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:
“When that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small, juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazelnuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits and salted pork cut up into little flakes! The whole enriched with butter and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.” (Chapter 15)
Today we think of chowder as a distinctly, deliciously creamy concoction, although dough, crackers or soaked hardtack were used instead of milk until roughly the 1850s. As milk became readily available to the home cook, it started being used to soften the crackers, then larger amounts were added at the last moment. Eventually whole milk was used during the chowder’s cooking stage, as the dish became more the soup we know today.
A quick note for completists: Manhattan-style clam chowder made with tomato broth instead of milk appeared in the late 1800s but was originally called New York clam chowder – derisively by New Englanders, as are all things in connection with the Big Apple. This modified chowder was thought to have been a Portuguese influenced dish, perhaps from the communities in Rhode Island.
“Most Scottish cuisine is based on a dare.” – Mike Meyers, So I Married An Axe Murderer
Cullen Skink is a Scottish soup made with smoked haddock that’s been cooked in milk, very similar to chowder though perhaps with a thinner broth. The delightfully eccentric – though not altogether appetizing – name is derived from the fishing town Cullen in the northeast of Scotland. Skink is Scots for knuckle or shinbone in reference to making a stock or broth, though cold smoked haddock makes the backbone of this dish.
First, the haddock is smoked over peat for added flavor, but like smoked salmon it’s not cooked entirely through and is therefore perishable. (By contrast, Arbroath Smokie from the town of Arbroath is hot smoked haddock in a preserved state.) Traditionalists use Finnan haddie, smoked haddock from the town of Finnan. As with other chowders, milk and potatoes are added and the whole can be further enhanced with herbs, lardons and pepper. (Tip: In a pinch, there is an absolutely serviceable tinned Cullen Skink available from the British purveyor Baxter’s – of which the home office and original shop is only 12 miles from Cullen.)
A History of Chowder: Four Centuries of a New England Meal, Jake Walker and Robert S. Cox
Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Holt Mcdougal
Encyclopedia of Kitchen History, Mary Ellen Snodgrass
Larousse Gastronomique, Prosper Montagné
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
The “Finnan Haddie”: Where Caught and Where Cured: Yachting and Fisheries Exhibition, 1897, Imperial Institute, London
*Final image courtesy of The Elemental Kitchen.