“Manhattan. Sometimes from beyond the skyscrapers, the cry of a tugboat finds you in your insomnia in the middle of the night, and you remember that this desert of iron and cement is an island.” - Albert Camus.
Reading these lines last week put me in a maritime frame of mind, and I decided to make fish soup.
Say it again. Fish Soup. A pair of syllables which could not sound more humble. But as I discovered, fish soup is no place for complacency. For the man who has a perfectionist streak it is possible for fish soup to drive him within inches of lunacy.
When people think of fish soup, what most commonly comes to mind is Bisque (often lobster, but cheaper and equally good with shrimp or crab). I’m not a big fan. I find bisques too smooth, unnervingly velvety, and I remember them being considered the height of sophistication in the 1980s. A bisque is the Roger Moore of soups.
I prefer my fish soups rougher, more alive. I like my bowl to be teeming with tentacles, pincers, carapaces and antennae. When I stir my soup, I want the surface to be broken by the head of a langoustine, who fixes me briefly with a dead-eyed stare before I decapitate him with a twist of my fingers to devour his body and suck out his brains.
There are as many fish soups and stews in the world as there are nations (or at least nations with a coast). A brief cross-section for those who are interested:
- Spain: Caldillo de Perro; Sopa del Duelo; Suquillo
- Italy: Brodetto di Pesce Veneziano; Zuppa di Pesce alla Barese; Cacciucco Livornese
- Greece: Kakaviá; Avgolémono Psarósoupa
- Turkey: Balık Çorbası Bodrumlı
- America: Quahog Chowder; Cape Cod Squid Stew; Ciopinno
And of course, there’s the French who invented the Bisque, La Bourride and – perhaps the most celebrated fish stew of them all – Bouillabaisse. And last week I tried my hand at Bouillabaisse.
But it turns out that Bouillabaisse isn’t something at which you casually ‘try your hand’. As anyone who has spent time with the French knows, they’re not afraid of making life irksome. My attempts to make Bouillabaisse became – in the language of the TV talk-show host - a ‘personal journey’ during which I faced much hardship and frustration, but emerged a stronger person in possession of two truths which I had always known, but had somehow forgotten.
The first truth is that that trying to recreate a grand European dish in a tiny New York kitchen probably isn’t going to work.
And secondly, that the French can be rather annoying.
In my quest to cook an authentic Bouillabaisse, I unearthed – like Indiana Jones crawling through the jungle – recipes from 1826 (Brillat-Savarin), 1904 (author unknown), 1988 (Gilbert Le Coze). With a characteristically French hauteur, they all seemed resolute on one things: Bouillabaisse is not to be considered Bouillabaisse without Rascasse.
The rascasse (in English: Scorpionfish) is a devilishly ugly fish which inhabits the rocky waters of the Mediterranean. Might substitutes be allowed, I wondered? “Mais non,” seems to be the message telegraphed from Marseille, “you must ‘ave ze rascasse to make ze Bouillabaisse, you degenerate British imbecile!”
Emboldened by this challenge, I girded my loins and became determined to find a rascasse for my Bouillabaisse. I asked New York’s finest fishmongers. No joy. My challenge evolved into an obsession. Increasingly frantic I began to stay up late, deaf to the imploring tones of my wife, glued to the computer like a lonely pervert scouring the internet for porn as I searched for where rascasse might be found in North America. Still no luck.
I discovered a directory of Marseille fishmongers, and came close to calling them… but lost my nerve. I speak some French, but the lessons I took as a youngster occupied an awkward parallel universe in which we would invite an imaginary French boy named Jean-Yves to play badminton on the beach, watch the Tour de France together on the sofa, visit the local discotheque, then stop off at the Turkish baths for a rub. (OK, I made that last bit up.) In other words, I’m wholly ill-equipped to ask a grumpy French fishmonger (unshaven, smelling of Pernod and the sea, filterless cigarette glued to a blob of tar on his lower lip) whether he “might be kind enough to airfreight me a couple of Rascasse Rouge or other specimens of the scorpaenidae family, and whether he might know what the customs implications would be of the aforementioned endeavour.”
In the end, finding a Rascasse – even among the bountiful diversity of New York – proved impossible. So teetering on what felt like the far reaches of my sanity, I threw in the towel (much to the glee of the imaginary Frenchmen I pictured to be observing my pitiful efforts) and accepted that sometimes it’s OK to surrender. Yes, even to the French.
(At this point it is worth pointing out to my French friends that I’m really only kidding, and that my teasing is surely born from a deep-rooted British sense of envy for your cuisine. And 35 hour work weeks. And outrageous vacations.)
So I turned to one of my favourite culinary works: Cooking For Friends by the French chef Raymond Blanc. During the early nineties, prior to the resurgence of native British chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay, Raymond Blanc was the godfather of cooking in the UK. Cooking for Friends is written in the weary tone of a man who believes he is surrounded by savages (of whom you – the reader – are almost certainly one), and who is convinced that the world is condemned to a downward spiral into barbarism.
The book says it can “show how anyone can make simple and delicious food”, and it contains such easy, throw-together dishes as “Roast Gressingham ducklings with a jasmine sauce and sultanas coulis.” Or “Fillet of hare in a juniper-scented cream.” Right, exactly the kind of thing I’d rustle up when having a few pals over for a simple dinner.
Here is a somewhat adapted version of Raymond Blanc’s generic “Soupe de Poissons”. It is a long list of ingredients, but it is really easy. My primary addition is to throw in some clams or other small sea creatures. Also, whereas Blanc is somewhat prescriptive about his choice of fish, I’m more cavalier. I used a striped bass which are cheap on the East Coast. Also, contrary to the snobbery to which I’ve become accustomed from the French, the recipe is appended by a charming concession that “if you want to make a ‘low-budget’ soup, it is possible to use only fish bones and the taste would still be quite delicious. This is common practice in small bistros and restaurants.”
SOUPE DE POISSONS
- A whole fish, weighing about 1.5 lbs. Get your fishmonger to scale, gut and filet it for you. KEEP THE BONES.
- The aforementioned bones, chopped small
- A handful of clams, or some squid, or a couple of langoustine, other small tasty sea creatures of your choosing. Ensure they are cleaned properly.
- 1 small onion, peeled and chopped.
- 1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, unpeeled and lightly crushed
- 2 tomatoes, chopped
- The leaves & sprouts from the end of a fennel bulb, washed and chopped
- 1 generous pinch of saffron
- 3 fl oz of olive oil
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 7 fl oz of white wine
- 1 bouquet garni (1 bayleaf, 4 sprigs of thyme, 2 parsley stalks tied together)
- 2.5 pints water
- 1 tablespoon Pernod*
- 2 pinches cayenne pepper
- Some garlic croutons (which you could make, but I’m too lazy so mine came in a packet.)
Making the soup.
In a large saucepan, sweat all the onion, carrot, garlic and tomatoes together with the fennel and saffron in olive oil for 2 minutes. Add the fish, chopped bones and tomato paste, stirring all the time, and sweat for another 2 minutes. Add the wine and bouquet garni, and cover with water. Add the Pernod*, bring to the boil, skim and simmer for 30 minutes.
While the soup simmers, steam the clams / squid / other sea creatures until they are cooked. Set aside.
Cool the soup down a little, then remove the bouquet garni. Pour the contents of the pot, fish bones and all, into a blender or food processor and grind. Force the soup through a fine sieve, pressing with a ladle to extract as much liquid as possible.
Finishing the soup and serving.
In a saucepan, bring the soup to a boil, then skim off any fat. Add the clams / squid / other sea creatures. Taste and season with salt, papper and cayenne pepper. Serve with garlic croutons, and some fersh crusty bread on the side.
*A note on Pernod. There’s no point in buying an entire bottle just to use a couple of tablespoons in this recipe. You’ll never drink the rest of the bottle. What I suggest is to go to your local bar, buy a couple of shots and pour it into a to-go cup.
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