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From Bourride To Bouillabaisse, Fish Soups Are Simply Wonderful

Fishermen live in the collective French imagination much as cowboys do in our American one. They’re independent, they take risks, they taunt nature by going out in boats to round up the denizens of the deep.

It’s a rough way of life. The weather is bad much of the year, the seas choppy and cold. Fishermen are notorious for their gruff ways, their bad language - the stuff that easily mythologizes and romanticizes the work for most landlubbers.

It’s a society of men who live aboard a ship for days at a time in cramped quarters. They don’t carry many provisions and depend largely on their daily catch for meals.

Americans picture cowboys under a great sky, sitting around a campfire, with a caldron of chili bubbling. The French keep an image of fishermen, huddled on a boat, the Atlantic wind blowing, sitting around a caldron of boiling broth, ready for some freshly caught fish to be thrown in. This is “guy” cooking.

Fishermen’s soup is made on the boats - soupe de pecheurs - simple boiled affairs, using cut-up pieces of fish. A variation is the fish pot - potee de poissons - using whole fish, quickly cooked, so that the fish don’t fall apart. The cooked fish are pulled out of the pot, the flesh is placed into soup bowls and then mashed together with the soup broth.

In the ports and coastal villages, though, these simple fish soups are made more civilized by fishermen’s wives and fishmongers. They become comfort dishes, a pot simmering on the stove, idealizing hearth and home. Some are still quite simple. Others are more elaborate.

Each coastal region of France has its traditional fish soup. Many of the recipes are similar, their individual personality coming from the kind of fish that are used and utilizing the most common produce of the area. La Cotriade, the fish soup from Brittany, needs conger eel to give it succulence. It also has potatoes. La soupe corse from Corsica has roasted red peppers added. The Basque, toro, from the southwest corner of France, has mussels, conger, rockfish and langostinos. It’s flavored with olive oil and tomatoes.

La Chaudree from Poitou adds muscadet wine and can have bacon in it. Some say that this is the original version of our American chowder, because it often has cream. In the south, around Nice, they make la bourride, thickened with aioli, a garlicky mayonnaise and egg.

Clearly, though, the most famous fish soup is bouillabaisse, from Marseilles, the great Mediterranean port. It’s flavored with saffron and tomatoes and has become a staple in restaurants around the world. Its base is La Soupe de Poissons, a simple fish soup whose ingredients - tomatoes, onions, fish bones and heads - are pounded through a conical strainer with large holes to extract the bits of fish and the essence of the bones to give the soup a hearty texture. As a starter, serve it with croutons, shredded cheese and the fiery sauce known as Rouille. To make a bouillabaisse, simmer an assortment of fish, seafood, mussels, even lobster in it.

Fish soups are rustic fare. The method is easy and the spirit of the dish means that you can vary any recipe by using whatever fish or seafood is fresh and by adding any vegetables you think will go well in the mix. In Marseilles, you’ll find bouillabaisse where the fish is grilled separately and served apart from the soup.

Sometimes the broth is thin, like that of La Cotriade that has been flavored with saffron and tomatoes. Some say that la bourride is simply a bouillabaisse with less glamorous fish.

People argue over the correct way to make each of these fish soups in the most accurate manner. But this is not accurate cooking. Don’t strive for authenticity, for, in the case of fish soups, authenticity is in the mind of the cook.

La Cotriade

4 slices bacon, cut crosswise into thin, short strips

3 onions, finely chopped

1-1/2 quarts water

2 fish heads, tied in cheesecloth

2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons salt or to taste

1 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 large potato, peeled and thinly sliced

3 pounds assorted fish (such as monkfish, eel, halibut, salmon), cut up


Place bacon in 3-quart pan over medium heat and cook 3 minutes. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes longer or until onions are softened. Add water, fish heads, thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Increase heat to high. Bring to boil and cook 20 minutes.

Remove fish heads from broth and reduce heat to medium. Add potato and cook 5 minutes. Add assorted fish and cook 5 minutes longer or until fish is done. Remove bay leaves. Pour into soup tureen and serve immediately with croutons on the side.

Yield: 4 to 5 servings.

La Chaudree

1 tablespoon butter

2 onions, finely chopped

1 medium leek, white part only, cut into thin rounds (about 3/4 cup)

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

1 cup white wine

3 cups water or canned low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth

1 cup whipping cream

2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 teaspoons salt or to taste

3 pounds assorted white fish (such as halibut, cod, Dover sole, black bass), cut up


Melt butter in 3-quart pan over medium heat. Add onions, leek and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Add wine and cook 1 minute to burn off alcohol. Add water, cream, thyme, bay leaves, pepper and salt. Increase heat to high. Bring to boil.

Add fish. Cover and cook 5 minutes or until fish is done. Remove bay leaves. Pour into soup tureen and serve immediately with croutons on the side.

Yield: 4 to 5 servings.

La Soupe de Poissons

4 pounds fish bones and scraps (see note at end of recipes

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 onions, sliced (about 1-1/2 cups)

6 garlic cloves, chopped

8 plum tomatoes, preferably overripe (about 2 pounds) or 2 (16-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes without liquid, cut up

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 cups dry white wine

5 cups cold water

2 tablespoons Pernod

2 teaspoons salt or to taste

1 teaspoon whole peppercorns

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/4 tablespoon dried

Dash saffron

1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel



Shredded Swiss cheese

Rinse fish bones well and drain. Combine olive oil, onions and garlic in 10-quart stock pot or kettle over medium heat and cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and fish bones. Cut heat to low and cook 10 minutes. Add wine and water. Increase heat and bring to boil. Add Pernod, salt, peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, saffron and orange peel. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, 1 hour.

Pass some broth through large cone strainer, pounding bones with large wooden spoon to extract their juices and so that little bits of fish will give texture to soup. When bones in strainer are dry, return them to soup. Repeat process until all liquid is in one container and all dry bones are in another. Remove and discard any fat from surface of soup.

Replace soup in pot and cook until flavor is strengthened and texture is thickened. Pour soup into bowls and serve with croutons, Rouille and shredded Swiss cheese.

Yield: 4 to 5 servings.


1/4 pound potatoes, peeled

1/2 cup La Soupe de Poissons

1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper

Dash saffron

12 cloves garlic

2 egg yolks

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste

1-1/2 cups virgin olive oil

Cut potatoes into 1/2-inch pieces. Place in small saucepan and add La Soupe de Poissons, cayenne and saffron. Bring to boil over medium heat. Cook, covered, until potatoes are done. Uncover and continue cooking until liquid is reduced and potato chunks fall apart and have a mushy appearance. Remove from heat and allow to cool 5 minutes.

Transfer mixture to blender or food processor. Add garlic, egg yolks and salt and blend until smooth. Add oil in slow stream until absorbed.

Yield: 2 cups.

Note: The best bones to use are from non-oily fish, such as halibut, sole or flounder. Salmon bones give a bitter flavor to stocks. Swordfish bones give an unpleasantly fishy flavor. Shrimp shells and lobster carcasses make important additions to fish stew soup.