The fabled and much fêted, saffron-robed Marseillaise legend and presence—arrogant, flamboyant, and insolent, with its crown of horny rascasse, its exotic suite of tropical-colored Mediterranean denizens, and its fiery red rouille—shares its special titles of nobility with only one other preparation, the Provençal fish soup (soupe de poissons), which holds in its clear and essential broth the soul of bouillabaisse. The same sensuous warmth, the same sapid density, and the same limpid reflections of red-gold are only thrown into sharper relief by the absence—but for a few floating fresh egg noodles—of solid garnish. Outside of Marseilles, many a Provençal native will insist that soupe de poissons is a much finer dish than bouillabaisse, whose “broth is underflavored and the fish overcooked” (an accurate description, in fact, of nearly all restaurant bouillabaisses): “The bore of dealing with the bones and the overcooked flesh is eliminated and, since soupe de poissons is only a first course, one can follow it with a correctly cooked fish” (meaning a grilled sea bass). However unflagging one’s loyalty to a good bouillabaisse, there can be no doubt that a soupe de poissons numbers among the very pure and the very exciting things of the table. It is prepared like the following recipe (potatoes and eggs eliminated), an abundance of small fish, fish pieces, and fish heads (avoid oily, strong-flavored varieties, such as sardines, tuna, smelts, herring, mackerel) being added after the tomatoes have cooked awhile and before the water is added. They are stirred, crushed, and generally messed around for 15 minutes or so, until everything is cooked and supremely unsightly; then the boiling water is added, kept at a boil for ½ hour, and the liquid is put through a fine sieve, the solid material being pressed thoroughly to extract all juices, but not entering as a purée into the broth. The soup is reheated and fresh egg noodles, first parboiled for a minute and drained, finish cooking in it. It is, in Provence, traditionally made with several pounds of the minnows of bouillabaisse varieties—but that detail must, elsewhere, be ignored. Since the broth is strained, the contents of the bouquet garni may be added loosely (and, except for the orange peel, abundantly) and the refinements of peeling the tomatoes and chopping the garlic no longer have any meaning (the garlic should, nonetheless, be crushed—and several supplementary cloves may be added).
There are a number of poor cousins on which the name has been imposed—any soup, in fact, with the exception of soupe de poissons, that has been caressed by tomato, saffron, fennel, and garlic. Those of small interest (bouillabaisse de sardines, or the salt-cod version, bouillabaisse de morue) gratefully assume the splendid title. A bouillabaisse d’épinards is a pleasant thing and the Marseillais render it homage by calling it épinards à la Marseillaise. La bouillabaisse borgne (“one-eyed” bouillabaisse) is exquisite, and its very real qualities suffer from the imposition of the noble title. It can—in its own way—be bettered only by a bouillabaisse de petits-pois (identical preparation with a few potatoes less and a couple of handsful of tender, freshly shelled peas tossed in at the halfway point).
The bizarre name indicates the single egg in the plate of each guest. Lent normal vision, it may well serve as a relaxing and principal course for a light supper.
Cook the leeks and onion gently in the olive oil, stirring occasionally, for some 15 minutes or until softened and yellowed, but not colored. Add the tomatoes, the garlic, and the seasonings, stir, and continue cooking for 5 minutes or so, add the bouquet garni and pastis, pour in the boiling water, and, when the boil returns, add the potatoes. Turn the flame high and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are done. Discard the bouquet garni and, with the help of a large wire or slotted spoon, remove the potatoes to a preheated serving platter. Remove the pan from the heat and break the eggs, opening each just at the broth’s surface and letting it slip gently in. Cover and, when the eggs are poached, remove them carefully to the potato platter. Sprinkle generously with parsley. Pour the broth into a preheated tureen and serve, a crust of garlic bread in the soup plate of each guest, the bouillon ladled over, potatoes and an egg served on top.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard Olney. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.