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did I just eat an honest-to-goodness vraie bouillabaisse, or was it simply an expensive soupe de poisson

A fair number of French will tell you in unguarded moments that “Marseille is not France,” and what they mean by that is that it’s too Arab, too Italian, too Corsican, too mixed up with foreignness to be truly and adequately French.  But, anybody who knows me knows that’s exactly the kind of mixed up gene pool I like to swim in and eat in. It is a glorious stew of a city, smelling of Middle Eastern spices, garlic, saffron and the sea.  –Anthony Bourdain

You can make as dramatic a production as you want out of a bouillabaisse, but remember that it originated as a simple, Mediterranean fisherman’s soup, made from the day’s catch or its unsalable leftovers.  –Julia Child, who lived in Marseille for a year.

. . . there’s a convincing school of thought that says bouillabaisse, unlike its brethren around the Mediterranean, was a rich man’s dish from the beginning. Supporters of this argument point out that bouillabaisse is not made with just any fish but with quite specific varieties, none of which were ever abundant enough to be cheap, and that things like saffron and butter, both essential ingredients, would have been impossible for fisherman to afford until quite recently.  –Traveler’s Lunchbox

On any list of favorite Anthony Bourdain episodes would be his take on Marseille from Parts Unknown.  It is no longer available on Netflix, but it can be watched at  dailymotion.  Around 07:15, Anthony Bourdain and his traveling companion chef Eric Ripert are soon to eat a bouillabaisse à ma façon at Le Petit Nice Passedat, the only three star Michelin restaurant in Marseille.

Today, that lunch for Bourdain, Menu Bouille Abaisse en 5 services, costs 210€ per person, and one will need to reserve that particular menu item in advance, not after sitting down at the table.

What they eat is not a vraie bouillabaisse–my characterization–but a deconstructed version.  À ma façon, or in other words, the way I make it.  Sometimes well established chefs, in this case in a Michelin star restaurant, will take a staple dish, well-known, and break it down and remake it in a creative, thematic fashion.  To understand what is happening and to understand why, it is probably a good idea to eat a vraie bouillabaisse before making reservations at a Michelin starred restaurant and ordering something à ma façon.

One cannot eat une vraie bouillabaisse for under 50€ in France, or elsewhere.  One can certainly find a bouillabaisse for less and one for more than 200€.  A typical vraie bouillabaisse will cost between 50€ and 60€ for one person in Marseille, or nearby.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

While looking in a search engine for “bouillabaisse,” I saw the suggestion “best cheap bouillabaisse marseille” and laughed.  The best bouillabaisse is never cheap.

« Une bouillabaisse à 32 francs, mon petit, c’est une plaisanterie. À 25 francs, c’est une escroquerie ! Parce que, à ce prix, il ne peut pas y avoir ce qu’il faut dedans ».  —Le Monde, 38 years ago.

The soupe de poisson, or fish soup, is everywhere in France and ranges in price from under 10 € to 15€ for un entrée to 15€ and up for un plat principal, or main dish.  Don’t confuse that with a bouillabaisse.

The vraie bouillabaisse is a fish dish in Marseille.  It can be found elsewhere, but it originated there and its preparation and its service was initially stipulated by a small group of Marseille fish restaurants.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

The French like to authenticate what is good and valuable in their country.  They try to ensure that what is good will be good tomorrow and will not  be denigrated by cheap imitations.

They set up the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) to govern various products made in France.  Most people are familiar with the AOC for wine and the AOC for cheese.  Sparkling wine produced in the United States cannot be labeled champagne, for example.  It falls under the AOC.

Some regional restaurants have moved to authenticate and codify their dishes.  One of my favorites is the bouchon in Lyon.  According to their bylaws, they promise: « Nos partenaires privilégiés sont des entreprises reconnues par le monde de la restauration, qui ont décidé d’encourager notre démarche de qualité et nous suivre dans nos actions. »  These restaurants will often overlap in what the offer in their menus and preparations of some dishes may differ only slightly.

For the vraie bouillabaisse, there is the Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise.  This loose organization establishes what makes une vraie bouillabaisse.  Restaurants which are members guarantee that their bouillabaisse meets certain predetermined standards.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

The Membres fondateurs de la charte de la Bouillabaisse are Restaurant Miramar, Le Caribou, and Le Rhul.  The Membres signataires de la charte de la Bouillabaisse are today Chez Fonfon (Marseille), Chez Caruso (Marseille), L’Epuisette (Marseille), Peron (Marseille), La Reserve (Bandol), Chez Gilbert (Cassis), Restaurant de Bacon (Cap d’Antibes), Chez Chibrac (Switzerland), Au Jardin de la Tour (Avignon), and Chez Charlot (Paris).  I am not sure why Chez Michel (Marseille) is not on this list.

Peron offers a Bouillabaisse ‘Peron’ servie à l’assiette for 56€ and a Menu Croisière for 84€, which includes a mise en bouche, entrée, bouillabaisse, et dessert.  Chez Fonfon will serve you their Bouillabaisse du pêcheur for one person for 53€ « Dans la plus grande tradition Marseillaise ».  Recently, I ate at Le Rhul.  Their bouillabaisse du pêcheur was 58€ per person, and if I had added lobster it would have cost 71€.

I have eaten bouillabaisse in four of these restaurants; and at Restaurant Miramar I have ordered it twice.  I have also eaten a bouillabaisse à ma façon at Une Table au Sud, a one star Michelin restaurant on the Vieux Port in Marseille and at Le Petit Nice, a three star Michelin restaurant on the Corniche in Marseille.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)

I won’t go into the various stages of eating a vraie bouillabaisse nor what to expect when ordering it.  That can be found elsewhere.  I will add that you could be given a bib for putting around your neck.  If the service is good, they will attach it for you.  You will need it.


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