The battle of the bouillabaisse: Young chefs are daring to tinker with the classic dish

Marseille's signature dish has been the same for generations. But revolution struck in 2003 in the form of a bouillabaisse milkshake and modern chefs have continued to experiment

In Marseille, the église de bouillabaisse is a broad church, and its members don't always agree, or even recognise each other. Sitting in the panoramic first-floor window of his restaurant Une Table, au Sud, looking out over the Vieux Port at the last of the morning fishermen packing up their stalls, an up-and-coming young chef named Ludovic Turac showed me his bouillabaisse redesign.

A long, narrow crouton of homemade focaccia thickly smeared with rouille and studded with slivers of raw vegetables, a glass carafe of creamy tan fish soup for dunking, and a selection of lightly fried fillets of fish. Absolutely delicious, but absolutely not the traditional dish of stewed fish, broth and roundels of toast.

I mentioned Chez Michel to Turac, by contrast. Michel is the most classic of the Marseille fish restaurants, opened in 1946. The staff still wear white jackets with gold epaulettes and it's gained, lost and regained its Michelin star over the decades without, according to its founder Michel Visciano, ever having changed a single detail. Another of the legendarily acerbic M Visciano's quotes, in response to a complaint that the bouillabaisse didn't contain rascasse, which hadn't been in the morning catch due to a force eight mistral, was "Madame, I am a restaurateur, not a meteorologist". Ludovic Turac smiled. "I must try Chez Michel, but it always looked like an old people's home to me." Cheeky lot, the Marseillais.

Another chef, commenting on another rival classic, the Miramar, highly successful due to its prime pitch on the quayside and its red plush Fifties decor, opined that it was "a place for Japanese tourists".

The Miramar and Chez Michel on one hand and Une Table, au Sud on the other represent two ends of the bouillabaisse spectrum; old-school classic, and innovative. The traditionalists follow the Bible, or the Reboul, as it's known, Jean-Baptiste Reboul's 1897 La Cuisinière Provençale, now in its 28th edition. The fish must consist of half a dozen species from a list including John Dory, whiting, conger eel, sea bass, bream and angler fish, known in Marseille as baudroie, galinette or sea hen, gurnard, little crabs, occasionally langouste, or crayfish.

The basic method consists of cooking the fish rapidly in a pan of water, oil, onion, garlic and tomato flavoured with bay, thyme, fennel and saffron, boiled fast so as to amalgamate the liquids, then serving the bouillon poured over the fish and thick croutons of bread.

In modern Marseille, what Reboul calls the bouillabaisse riche has come to predominate, the simple water-and-oil bouillon replaced by a thick sieved reduction of rockfish and shellfish similar to Provençal fish soup, invariably dosed with a slosh of pastis, while most chefs now make their rouille with half olive, half grapeseed oil, emulsified with crushed garlic, ground red Espelette pepper, breadcrumbs and sometimes a little fish broth.

The soup is served first with croutons and rouille, then the plate of fish, with more soup as required.

But that's for the old people's home. Revolution struck in 2003, instigated by one Lionel Lévy, former proprietor of Une Table, au Sud, now executive chef of the new InterContinental Hotel. A decade ago, Lévy unveiled his startling new creation, the bouillabaisse milkshake, which involves a glass of purée of saffron potatoes, emulsion of egg, oil and mascarpone, fish broth foam and poached John Dory. "I was fed up with Marseille being overlooked gastronomically," he told me, "but the milkshake outraged some people."

Nonetheless, it was soon joined by the bouillabaisse hamburger, courtesy of Sylvain Robert, chef at L'Aromat'.

There are two other tendencies: cheap trad and deconstructed de luxe. Cheap trad is the tourist bouillabaisse offered by touts around the Vieux Port for as little as €18 and ridiculed by serious professionals. Though the dish began as a cheap fisherman's staple, thrown together using the poor remains of the catch, the price of increasingly rare rockfish and the large quantities needed for reduction for the rich broth mean that anything less than about €55 is simply not realistic, or so the argument goes.

It's worth mentioning, however, that some cut-price variations on bouillabaisse shouldn't be disregarded: the marmite du pêcheur façon bouillabaisse at the OM Brasserie is a first-rate dish for about €20.

King of the deconstructed de luxe tendency is Marseille's only Michelin three-star, Le Petit Nice, the luxurious Corniche-front domain of Gérald Passédat, a ruggedly photogenic scion of an old Marseille family. M Passédat charges €170 for ma bouille-abaisse, the Citroën SM of fish suppers, whose three-stage specification, shellfish and shellfish fritters in a broth of algae, other fish and shellfish in saffron bouillon, followed by other fish poached in riche soup, does sound pretty rarefied.

One category of bouillabaisse is even rarer nowadays, perhaps extinct: the homemade fisherman's version. Elizabeth David quotes a wonderful meal of just-caught fish cooked over an open fire on the banks of the Étang de Berre: does such a thing ever happen now? Fishermen are having a hard time in Marseille, as everywhere. A dozen stalls are all that remain on the Vieux Port, the main fish market having long ago moved to a warehouse complex down the coast at Saumaty.

Nonetheless, all the serious chefs still buy directly from small boats whose owners will phone them as soon as a choice catch lands on deck. I tried to prise a recipe out of Ludovic Turac's favourite fisherman Sébastien Izzo, as he laboured at the dockside on his boat, where he'd been since 2am, but he didn't respond with sufficient alacrity.

The church of bouillabaisse does have its heretics, it must be said. Elizabeth David apparently wasn't particularly keen. Jonathan Meades, who moved to Marseille a couple of years ago, told me he hasn't eaten a bouillabaisse since he arrived, preferring supions, the delicious little sautéed cuttlefish that are a cheaper speciality of the city. To be frank, I'm a bit of a bouillabaisse agnostic myself, favouring the creamier tomato-less bourride, but that's a different casserole of baudroie.

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Restaurant Manager / Sommelier

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Seasonal Placement

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced Hotel Receptionists...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Receptionists - Poole

    £12500 - £13520 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn