How beautifully the spectrum of French fish soups reflects the changing degrees of latitude and the intensity of the light. Starting with Normandy, whose soup is palely gleaming, creamy with flashes of peach-shaded mussels, one then travels south to the freshwater matelotes of the Loire and onwards to lively, robustly flavoured soups, red-gold with tomato and saffron and eaten with rouille, the magnificent fiery-tasting, rust-coloured sauce of the Midi.
This recipe comes from Vézénobres, north of Nîmes, the city of the great nineteenth-century chef, Charles Durand. When making this soup in France it’s a good idea to tell the stallholder – he often sells a mixture of small fish specially for soup and he’ll make a selection for you. In England, use heads and bones of a variety of white fish like cod and haddock but try to include some conger eel to give body.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan and soften the onion and garlic in it. Add the fish and quickly turn it over in the oil. Add the tomatoes, bouquet garni,
Strain the soup through a sieve, pressing the fish gently to extract the full flavour. Return the liquid to the pan, add the saffron and simmer for 20 minutes to take the colour and flavour from the spice. Taste and adjust the seasoning of the soup.
To make the rouille: halve and de-seed the red chilli (if using a dried pepper soak in warm water for a few minutes to soften), and chop finely. Pound the chilli pepper to a paste with the garlic. Soak the bread in cold water, squeeze dry and gradually work into the chilli paste with the olive oil, beating well all the time as for mayonnaise. Add the tomato paste to heighten the colour if you wish. Spoon the rouille into a pottery bowl.
Slice and toast the bread. Serve the soup in hot bowls and hand the rouille, toasted croûtons and grated Gruyère cheese separately. Each person floats a croûton or two – covered with rouille or cheese or both – in the soup, stirring to incorporate the flavours.
© 1987 Geraldene Holt. All rights reserved.