As well as the ubiquitous assiette de fruits de mer, every restaurant along the French Mediterranean coast serves fish soup - very often from a tin or bottle which, ironically, in some cases is really rather better than the homemade version served in those erratic port-side restaurants. The real secret to making a good fish soup is being able to acquire what is known as poissons de roche. This is a colourful selection of small fish netted ruthlessly but necessarily and specifically for this dish. You will often see them advertised in French markets as soupe de poisson. So you need about a kilo of this. If you can’t buy it, you can use such things as small gurnard, red mullet, soft-shelled crabs, red snapper, etc. All need to be gutted, scaled and de-finned, then chopped into fairly small pieces.
First make the aïoli: purée the garlic in a food processor, then add the egg yolks and whole egg and process until well amalgamated. With the motor still running, slowly pour in enough olive oil to make a thick mayonnaise. Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Fry the garlic, carrot, leek, celery, tomatoes, onion and fennel in olive oil until soft. Add the fish and about 1.7 litres/3 pints of water, bring quickly to the boil, then turn down to a simmer. Once the fish is cooked, ladle the fish and liquid into a food processor and blend. Then strain it through a fine sieve into another saucepan, pushing it through the sieve with a spoon so that all the fleshy bits go through but not the bones and things. Reheat the soup very gently, add the saffron, season with sea salt and black pepper and that’s it. To serve, spread the warm croûtons of French bread with aïoli and float them in the individual bowls of soup. The grated cheese is an optional extra for people to sprinkle on to their soup.
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