Marseille Fish Soup
It won’t matter if the sun doesn’t come out when you serve this soup, because it is hotter than the sunshine of the Midi.
~ Roger Verge
Nothing could be more Provençal than to eat a fish soup, whether it’s in the form of bouillabaisse, bourride or this simple rustic soup popular every along the Mediterranean coastline. Marseille fish soup, or soupe de poissons as it’s known, is something I constantly crave. I adore the assertive flavors redolent with the very soul of Provence that transports me back to the Vieux Port where I first tried it decades ago.
You can always tell which staff members or clients have traveled to the South by the dreamy, far off look at the very mention of soupe de poissons. It invokes pastis laced Marcel Pagnolian dreams of playing petanque in village squares sweetly scented with wild garrigue.
I made fish soup at least three times while Chef at my last restaurant in Southern California. The first time was for a famous movie producer who spent a good deal of time working around Nice, France. We were talking at length about our love for Provence when he abruptly interrupted in an almost childlike soft tone if I knew how to make it correctly.
Authentic Fish Soup
Author Waverly Root writes at length about his frustrating search for an authentic fish soup in ‘the Food of France’. He narrowed it down a version served in Saint Tropez, 65 miles east of Marseilles, largely because of the addition of a local chemical green colored fish. For most of his narrative, finding the elusive fish was maddening “because the mistral had been blowing without a let-up during the whole period. This is supposed to discourage the fish, or at least some of the fish, which do not allow themselves to be caught in weather they feel is unsuitable for the purpose. The effect of the mistral on the fish may be a legend, but the effect on the fishermen was observable. They preferred to stay ashore and play petanque…” Finally, on his last day in Saint Tropez he is blessed with not one, but two offerings of soupe de poissons.
Soupe de Poissons or Soupe aux Poissons?
Farther in Waverly Root’s narrative he provides a compelling argument as what should be the correct title. Soupe de poissons implies a soup with fish floating inside. “A dish providing soup and fish is not the genuine article, as the Riviera understands it. In soupe aux poissons, no fish is visible. It is there all right, but it has disappeared into the liquid. The body of the fish has gone. The soul remains. The fish is ground, crushed, pulverized, and then cooked until it has become liquid itself, and the soup is then strained to eliminate any telltale traces of the ingredients that provides its greatness.”
I remember with fondness, the long walk through Marseilles’ graffiti covered streets to the Vallon-des-Auffes to dine at l’Epuisette. We stopped for a pastis to whet our appetite and contemplate what was to come. The conversation, at least what I remembered of it, centered around our anticipation of the fish soup.
Years later, I still am haunted by its seductive flavors.
Soupe de Poisson Recipe
You will want to make a big batch and freeze what you don’t eat. Making fish soup at home can be a very messy, labor-intensive process. Trust me, you will thank me later for this advice. I usually make a few gallons and then freeze leftovers in quart sized mason jars ready to use at a moments call.
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2 onions sliced
- 1/2 bulb fennel chopped
- 6 cloves garlic mashed
- 1 hot pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 teaspoon saffron
- 1 Dungeness crab crushed
- 28 ounce can San Marzano tomatoes
- 2 pounds fish fillets see note
- ¼ cup pastis
Finishing the soup
- 1 cup rouille
- 16 croûtons rubbed with garlic
- 1 cup grated Gruyère
- Heat the olive oil in large, heavy gauge pot. Saute sliced onions and fennel until softened and translucent, about five minutes.
- Add mashed garlic, hot pepper, bay leaf, saffron, and crushed Dungeness crab. Continue cooking till the pleasant aromas of garlic fill your kitchen and the crab shells begin to turn red.
- Crush the tomatoes and add along with their juice, fish fillets and top with enough cold water to cover by an inch.
- Bring to boil, then lower to a simmer for thirty minutes.
- Strain your soup. Run all the solids through a food mill to extract every ounce of flavor. The body of the soup comes from what gets passed through the mill and is added back to the broth. I generally discard the harder crab shells as they tend to get stuck in the food mill.
Finishing the soup
- Adjust the seasonings and serve in heated bowls with grated Gruyère, croûtons, and plenty of rouille on the side. Fish soup should be strongly flavored and assertive. There should be a slight heat, lots of saffron, and a touch of Pastis. If your broth is too thin you can thicken slightly with cornstarch though that is completely non-Provencal.
Fish: Make sure to use at least one fish that has some gelatin in it. I use rockfish from the Pacific Northwest to give the soup the body it needs.
To make Rouille
There are a million variations of rouille. The version listed below will give you the same flavors found at most restaurants serving rouille. Remember, people eat results — not methods. I sometimes add some boiled potato for adding body. In the end, whisk in a touch of your fish soup to give more flavor to your rouille. Make a big batch of rouille and try eating it with almost everything you can imagine — vegetables, cold roast pork, chicken, on sandwiches.
- ¼ c. Egg yolks
- 3 T Garlic
- 2 large pinches Saffron
- 1 T. Paprika
- ½ c Sriracha, Red Rooster Hot Sauce
- 3 T. Red Wine Vinegar
- 2 c. Olive Oil
- Puree everything except olive oil in a food processor.
- Add oil slowly like you were making mayonnaise or aioli.
- Taste and adjust seasonings as needed
If you like this recipe and want more I will give you a free, yes really free, hardbacked copy of my cookbook featuring 66 recipes from Provence. Simply click on the picture below to get yours!