You can't go to Marseille without eating a bouillabaisse. But first read our ultimate guide to the rich, complex fish stew which the city invented and has made its own.
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You'll find out here just what it is, where - and how - to eat the best bouillabaisse or to learn how to cook it and how some of the Marseille's top chefs are revolutionising this classic dish.
A Thumbnail History
According to some, bouillabaisse was brought to Marseille by the Ancient Greeks in 600 BC, though many Marseillais prefer the more colourful myth that it was the soup made by the Roman goddess Venus to send her husband, Vulcan, to sleep so that she could pursue her love affair with Mars.
In reality bouillabaisse started life as a simple fishermen's stew made from the leftovers of the catch they weren't able to sell, generally shellfish and rockfish too bony to serve in restaurants.
These would be cooked in a pot of sea water on a wood fire and seasoned with garlic, fennel and (after these were introduced to Europe from South America in the 16th century) tomatoes.
In the 19th century, as Marseille became more prosperous, the recipe was refined by restaurants and middle-class housewives. Saffron was introduced and fish stock substituted for sea water.
Today various types of fish soups and stews are found all around the Mediterranean, but what sets bouillabaisse apart are the provençal herbs and spices, the flavour of the bony local fish and the way it is served (see below).
What's in a name? Bouillabaisse (pronounced boo-ee-yah-bess) has been attributed, for reasons which remain obscure and which it's probably best not to ponder, to the figure of an abbess who had a boil.
Because the best bouillabaisse takes time to prepare and requires fresh (not frozen) ingredients, many restaurants will require you to order it 24 or sometimes even 48 hours in advance.
The Bouillabaisse Charter
Most restaurants on the Old Port offer bouillabaisse, but the quality varies widely. It's easy to find a cheap bouillabaisse in Marseille but you're unlikely to be served the genuine article.
In 1980 a "Bouillabaisse Charter" was drawn up by a group of a dozen or so local restaurateurs who were convinced the tradition was becoming debased by these tourist traps (and were very possibly in search of a marketing gimmick themselves).
The Marseille signatories included Le Caribou, Chez Caruso, Le Miramar, Chez Fonfon, L'Epuisette, Peron and Le Rhul.
Since then the inner circle has gradually expanded and now embraces members in Cassis, Avignon, Paris, Tunisia and even landlocked Switzerland.
The charter begins, rather splendidly, "Il n'est pas possible de normaliser la cuisine" - "It's not possible to normalise cooking."
Without being too prescriptive, it states that the recipe for bouillabaisse should include at least four of the following types of fish:rascasse (rockfish or scorpion fish),araignée (weever or spider crab), galinette/rouget grondin (red mullet), fielas/congre (conger eel) and chapon/scorpène (red scorpion fish).
Optional extras:Saint Pierre (John Dory), bauroie/ lotte (monkfish), langouste (crayfish) and cigale de mer, which is not one of those "land" cigales or cicadas which squawk in trees all summer long, but a lobster-like crustacean.
First is the broth, accompanied by croutons, which you rub with a clove of whole garlic and spread with rouille, a bright orange mayonnaise flavoured with saffron, cayenne and more garlic (rouille means, literally, "rust").
Where to Learn How to Cook Bouillabaisse
One of the original Charter signatories, the Miramar is closely identified with bouillabaisse - in fact the Miramar Restaurant's website is www.bouillabaisse.com.
The somewhat stuffy Miramar is convenient if you want to stay on the Old Port.
North of the Old Port, overlooking the Catalans beach is another bouillabaisse institution, Chez Michel, a venerable fish restaurant dating back to 1946 which won, lost and then recently won back a Michelin star.
However, if you're prepared to take a short taxi or bus ride along the Corniche, the one restaurant consistently recommended by Marseillais is Chez Fonfon in the beautiful Vallon des Auffes (pictured), where the cuisine is fully equalled by the view.
Some Marseillais even swear that the best bouillabaisse in the area is to be eaten in Cassis, at Chez Gilbert (also a signatory of the Bouillabaisse Charter), 19 quai des Baux, 13260 Cassis. Tel (+33) 4 42 01 71 36. Here too, the location is lovely: right on the Cassis harbourfront.
Advance reservation is essential for all these restaurants.
And, if quantity rather than quality is your thing, make a note in your diary now: on the last Sunday in June, every second year (on even years), a giant bouillabaisse for 2,500 people is cooked up in Sanary sur Mer to mark the feast day of Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishermen.
Over the last few years, some of Marseille's top chefs have risen to the challenge of bouillabaisse and come up with some strange and surprising solutions.
Lévy developed the Bouille-A-Baisse at his first Marseille restaurant, Une Table, au Sud, and now serves it at the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu, where he became head chef in 2013 (Une Table, au Sud continues to offer a more traditional bouillabaisse).
Le petit Nice, Marseille's only three-star Michelin restaurant, is perched right on the rocky seafront along the Corniche JF Kennedy. Its chef, Gérald Passédat, is constantly revising and revamping his version of bouillabaisse.
And yet another variant is proposed by Raymond Blanc, a Michelin-starred French chef based in Britain. On his 2012 BBC2 television show The Very Hungry Frenchman, Blanc demonstrated his recipe for a bouillabaisse terrine, which is also sometimes on the menu at his Oxford restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons.
The British author William Makepeace Thackeray, best known for his satirical novel Vanity Fair, lived for a while in Paris, where he became a huge fan of bouillabaisse - so much so that he wrote a delightful 11-stanza poem in its honour, The Ballad of Bouillabaisse. Here are the first two verses:
A Street there is in Paris famous,