Our "low to the ground" style of traveling enables us to uncover unique regional fare. By renting a car and driving through, rather than flying over, the countryside, we have stumbled upon all sorts of delicacies. A giant plus in our book. Right near the top of our list would have to be the bouillabaisse on the French Riviera.
While the city of Marseille traditionally lays claim to being the birthplace of bouillabaisse, the fact is that fishermen all along this rocky coast invented the soup as a way to use the boney fish and leftovers that they couldn't sell. The seafood was cooked over open fires in seawater seasoned with garlic and fennel. After a while, restaurants in Marseille ran with the recipe, adding saffron, orange peel, basil and bay leaf to the seasoning and sometimes tossing in a better class of fish.
We weren't really up for fighting our way through the traffic of France's second largest city to sample the soup at one of the many establishments in Marseille that claim to be the original home of bouillabaisse. So we ventured down to the coast to the little hamlet of Six-Fours-les-Plages and struck gold with the restaurant Au Royaume de la Bouillabaisse.
Perched on a point overlooking the beautiful Mediterranean, perhaps this was the very spot where a fisherman first filled a pot with seawater and set it to boil, or "bouillir" in French, and reduce, or "abaisser," his catch. We're not saying it was, but it certainly would have been the perfect place for it.
While we discussed this possibility, sipping our feather-light white wine and awaiting our order of Bouillabaisse de Gaou for two, we noticed that several tables had enormous platters of fish placed in the center. Everyone was diving in for a communal supper. Veronica, overcome by curiosity, bopped over and asked a group what they were eating. Their answer had a certain "duh" quality to it, as in "it's bouillabaisse, duh." But it sounded okay since it was in a heavy French accent. And everything sounds better when you're hearing it in French.
Well, we have had bouillabaisse all over The States, from New York to California, but this wasn't remotely similar to any of our previous experiences. Everything was always in one big bowl before, but here in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region of France, that's not bouillabaisse. While these fish were boiled and reduced in the broth, they were not served in it.
Our server brought a ridiculously huge platter and placed it on a tray over a warming flame in the center of the table. This was accompanied by a large urn of broth, also placed over a flame. Looked like they were expecting us to take our time, good thing too, considering the amount of food delivered. There were several varieties of seafood sharing the ample platter, so we set about trying to identify them. The waitress pointed out each of the participants, but the French names still left us pretty confused as to what we were about to consume. The mussels (moules in French) were easy enough to recognize, we also found the octopus without too much trouble.
Then things got a little more difficult but, by Google, we were going to figure this out. Traditionally bouillabaisse includes sea robins (grondin), a type of eel called conger and scorpionfish (rascasse) and as near as we could tell these were all present on our platter. Luckily we had video documentation to go back to, and we are fairly confident that those guys were our dinner. Along with the fish, the platter was laden with veggies. Leeks, onions, tomatoes, celery and potatoes were all intermingle between the fins and shells.
The proper method of consumption seemed to be filling a bowl with broth and then adding the fish and vegetables. Once the desired mixture was attained, toasted bread topped with rouille, a thick mayonnaise-like spread made from of garlic, peppers and tomato, should be floated atop the stew.
This combination was so spectacular that we had to take a moment for our eyes to roll back into their proper positions. Speaking of eyes, after we had torn into enough of the fish that shells, bones and fins were left dominating the platter, Veronica noticed a couple little white balls. "What are those, peppercorns?"
I told her that I thought they were fish eyes. I had seen these little buggers before, when cooking trout with the head still on, but she didn't buy it. "No, they're too hard, must be pepper. Eyeballs are squishy."
Whatever you say honey, go ahead and try one. She did... and immediately spit it out into her napkin with a face of pure shock. "It's horrible, all hard and chalky! It's like eating flavorless Pez! What is it?"
Obviously she wasn't going to believe my theory, so we asked our waitress. Without the benefit of English, our server got the point across with incredible clarity... by simply pointing. Luckily we had just enough wine left in our bottle for Veronica to rinse the eyeball residue out of her mouth.
Stuffed to the gills, we were thrilled to find that right outside of Au Royaume de la Bouillabaisse a trail led over a bridge to an island. It looked perfect for a little walk to settle the meal. We discovered quickly that it is also very popular with the locals as a swimming spot. We also couldn't help but notice that these zany French don't much care for bathing suits.
Beyond the swimming hole, The Isle of Gaou is a nature preserve with trails all around the perimeter that skirt right along the tops of some vertigo inducing rocky cliffs. The unbelievable views of our dinner's home habitat seemed like the perfect finish to this perfect experience.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com