MARSEILLE, France — Bouillabaisse and I have a history.
For years, I made this fish soup — from scratch, fish heads and all — for Christmas Eve dinner. Then, to prepare myself when I first became a food writer for the Tribune, I invited friends over and served them bouillabaisse made four ways so I could store the taste memory of chefs who (1) cheat (canned clam broth), (2) cater to fish haters (chicken broth!), (3) cheap out (no saffron) or (4) really serve a classic dish.
For my second cookbook, "Glorious Fish in the Microwave," I converted the recipe so it could be made, yes, in the microwave. Amazing when I think about that now. There was a handful of us writers who proved you could make such creative dishes with a microwave. But (don't quote me) why would you? We have all moved on.
There was, however, one essential ingredient missing from my history with bouillabaisse: I had never been to Marseille. I had never sat in a harborside restaurant and inhaled the sea and the rich seafood broth, made with fish caught in the Mediterranean and served in the city where it all began.
Last summer, my husband and I left Paris to fly to Marseille to take care of that detail. We stayed two nights — and ate fish soup three times.
Is a Marseille bouillabaisse different from what we can make in Chicago — or what we had later in a restaurant back in Paris? Of course. Terroir is part of the mystique, part of the reason for travel.
We picked the reasonably priced (92 euros/$121) Hermes Hotel (hotel-hermes-marseille.fr), 2 rue Bonneterie.
I love the harbor view from the rooftop terrace. I could spot the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica, high on a hill and topped with a statue of the Madonna and Child. The huge, copper and gold leaf statue is the symbol of Marseille, the repeated image in the tourist shops and the reason we later took a trolley tour.
As we rounded a curve heading toward the basilica and our first good view of the Madonna and Child, the recording on the trolley announced in English:
"... the virgin and the kid."
Translation is a tricky field.
For our first stop, we dropped off our luggage and walked from our hotel in the Vieux Port past the thick walls of the old Fort St. Nicolas. The fort was built by the fearful Louis XIV, who ordered that the cannons face not the sea to deter foreign invaders but toward the city to thwart any revolutionary French. After a half-hour walk, we arrived at a small public beach, La Plage des Catalans, crammed with families and volleyball players.
Restaurant Chez Michel, 6 rue des Catalans, is just across the street, an air-conditioned, crisp-linens spot with enough large windows and mirrors to admit the scenes of the beach and passersby.
Let's pause at this point to reflect on the goal: authentic, humble fish soup, concocted from the fishermen's daily catch, served with stale bread and hearty garlic chips. Were we in the right place?
We were escorted by a waiter wearing a double-breasted jacket with epaulets to a generous table easily twice the size of any restaurant in Paris. At another table, a bottle of white Cassis — the classic wine with bouillabaisse — leaned leisurely in a silver bucket. The menu noted that Restaurant Michel has been serving bouillabaisse since 1946 and that to experience it would cost us 63 euros/$83 each. You read that right.
Why is bouillabaisse so expensive? Answer: Fresh-caught fish are expensive. Modern bouillabaisse includes loup de mer (sea bass), rascasse (a bony, coastal fish), St. Pierre (John Dory) and other fresh catch. The fish are boiled (bouillier) not in simple water but in previously made fish broth that starts with fish bones and is enhanced with leeks, tomatoes, garlic, fragrant olive oil, and herbs such as thyme, fennel and saffron. The starring fish then are added one variety at a time, the denser ones first, so the thinner ones don't overcook.
The humble soup has turned into an event. First, the waiter presents a platter of whole raw fish that will go into our soup. While the soup cooks in the kitchen, we share an appetizer, and soon the bouillabaisse side dishes appear: little bowls of croutons; peeled, fresh garlic; and rouille, a rust (rouille)-colored, thick and spicy spread of olive oil, garlic and red pepper.
Next, the fish come back, cooked, and the waiter bones them in front of us. He artfully arranges the boned fish, plus cooked white potato slices, on a plate. Then, with a silver ladle and from a silver chafing dish, carefully pours the rust-colored, highly aromatic broth into our soup bowls.
Now the work is up to us. Rub a piece of fresh garlic on a crouton, top the crouton with a dab of rouille and plop it into the broth to soften. Add some fish and potatoes to the bowl. Drop a little more rouille atop a morsel of fish, if you like. The rules are flexible.
(Reasons to go to Restaurant Chez Michel: The location is a little less touristy. The fin-fish-only bouillabaisse — no shellfish — seems a bit more authentic. restaurant-michel-13.fr)