Can’t you just hear the French schoolchildren taunting one another? Much as we play the “my Dad’s tougher than your Dad” game here in North America, one expects children in the south of France to try to one up each other over bouillabaisse.
Because every family has their own recipe. And every family’s recipe is a closely guarded secret. What I found in my Googling adventure in an attempt to track down a bouillabaisse recipe is that they can vary greatly. The only commonalities are fish, tomato, orange peel and saffron; everything else is up for grabs.
This is very much the same in Atlantic Canada where every family has a chowder recipe, and every kid is certain that their family’s chowder recipe trumps all others. Nobody makes fish chowder like my Dad (well, except for me), and it was an alternative to my Dad’s recipe that got me thinking about bouillabaisse.
Atlantic chowder is almost always dairy-based, and once I got diagnosed with a milk allergy, the best fish chowder in the world was off-limits to me. I’ve done a lot of work replacing regular dairy with soy, and in baked goods, it’s fine. But a soy-based fish chowder sounds disgusting even to me, and I eat tofu in some form almost every day.
Thus, I turned to the French. It’s probably sacrilegious for a classically trained cook to dislike French cuisine, especially when it’s the basis for your education, but I’ve never been a real fan. Too much meat and everything covered in a glommy sauce. Remember that classic French cuisine was designed, in its day, to cover the fact that more often than not, the meat was beginning to go rotten.
I also don’t buy the rather self-congratulatory explanation that all cuisines of the world are based on French cuisine. Tell that to a rural woman in Thailand cooking rice, or an Ethiopian mother grinding teff for injera.
But if I wanted fish stew, it was to France I had to turn. I found a pre-cut package of mixed Mediterranean fish at the supermarket and then I took twenty different recipes found online, listed the common ingredients in all of them, and set to work. Fish (some recipes indicated they must be made to serve 8 people because the recipe called for 8 kinds of fish), onion, garlic, fennel, leeks, potato, tomato, tomato paste, orange peel, saffron, bay leaves, Pernod, celery, fish stock, salt and pepper.
I’ve got no quantities listed, because this recipe still needs perfecting. The flavouring was right, but the fish needs tweaking – more shellfish, fewer things with bones, because you shouldn’t have to worry about fishbones in a soup. And who knows, maybe like my Dad’s Atlantic chowder, I won’t ever share the recipe with anyone, content in the fact that my bouillabaisse is better than your bouillabaisse.