Something fishy about National Bouillabaisse Day

Today, 14 December, is “National” Bouillabaisse Day. The fishy thing about National Bouillabaisse Day is that I am not sure entirely whether it is National Bouillabaisse Day in France, the United States or indeed anywhere. I can’t possibly believe it is National Bouillabaisse Day in Australia because we don’t even celebrate National Vegemite Day. I would have been much more convinced were it International Bouillabaisse Day.

However, I don’t want to get too concerned with facts because the idea of celebrating International Bouillabaisse Day is quite appealing and it should be supported. Next year I will make more of an effort.

Bouillabaisse is the traditional fisherman’s stew of Marseille. It contains fish and shellfish, olive oil, onions, tomatoes, garlic, saffron, orange zest, fennel and potatoes. True bouillabaisse, according to the local fisherman and chefs of Marseille, must contain rascasse, a bony scorpion fish found only in the Mediterranean.

I have had the delightful experience of eating fish soup in Provence (although not bouillabaisse). Provencal fish dishes are nearly always accompanied with rouille (a garlic saffron mayonnaise) and crusty sliced baguette.

Bouillabaisse is so special to the French that they believe it was first served by angels to the Three Marys of the Gospel, who were shipwrecked in the Camargue (between the two branches of the Rhone River near Arles) in Old Provence.

The English word is taken directly from the French word which originates from Provençal bouiabaisso or boulh-abaisso, a compound of two verbs corresponding to English boil-abase or to lower the boil. Montagné (1533-1592), the great French philosopher speculating on the etymology of bouillabaisse thought that the easy derivation—slow boil—was unlikely, since bouillabaisse is the product of a quick boil over a high flame. He didn’t believe either in a Marseillais tradition that it was invented by an abbess—the bouilli à l’abbesse—to brighten up Friday’s obligatory fish dinner in the diet.

I bought a wonderful book by Australian French cook, Dianne Holenghue, A Lifetime of Cooking, Teaching and Writing from The French Kitchen, because it had a recipe for cooking bouillabaisse with Australian fish (pictured). She, although respectful of the Marseilles tradition that it can not be made anywhere else, suggests that in Sydney several French chefs have given their nod to rock cod as being a perfect substitute for rascasse. Bon appetite!