I plan to make a bouillabaisse tonight. So I went off to my local fish monger earlier today. I knew I would never find rascasse. And they did not have gurnard, nor some of the other fish so famously associated with that delicious fishy stewy garlicky(if one has rouille with it) dish. Nevertheless, the selection of fish I brought home should do the trick. And there are tricks to this dish. One of them is to boil the tomatoes and olive oil and water very fast so as to emulsify the cooking liquid. I learned that not through a recipe, but from an essay in the 52nd edition of Granta by John Lanchester. The essay turns out to be an extract from his first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, which should be a pleasure to read. Well, of course my recipe from Larousse says to boil rapidly, but I did not really GET that until I read the description of mr Lanchester.
I’m not adding wine. Nor am I adding fennel or orange rind. But saffron, yes. And mussels which are not totally traditional. I’ve chopped leek and onion. The three, not five or seven kinds of fish cut into chunks, waiting. I’m not making rouille. Though I should have really…. in a continued celebration of garlic which my father ate probably once in his life. So maybe this cannot in all honesty be called a bouillabaisse. A rich fish soup maybe?
Fish dishes were few and far between at the table when I was a child. I am completely sure that neither my father nor my mother nor their parents ever had bouillabaisse. I doubt whether a fish stew or soup ever made it into their early childhood culinary experiences. I was an adult when I had a first fish stew: an Italian recipe from Marcella Hazan‘s first cookbook. I was an adult too when I had my first mussel on the shell. I remember thinking about how utterly different this firm flesh clinging to the sinewy foot in the hollow of a shiny shell was, to the usual tinned, smoked mussels which were a staple at my parents generation of young adults’ cocktail parties, and which my mother bought, despite the price, for my father: he would eat those with relish, smoked oysters too. I almost cannot eat the canned smoked version of either now. Not after I have cooked for myself and others pots of mussels in white wine, first shaking them around with finely chopped celery and onion and carrot, shells clicking in a pan, and smelling their distinctive aroma as they open and release their surprisingly sweet juices and reveal their decidedly sexy shape to my eyes and fingers.
No. No fish dishes really featured in my mother’s kitchen. Except fish cakes. And fish fillets from a harvest, caught at the coast by my father and his father on the odd camping holiday, batter dipped and deep fried in situ on a caravan gas stove by my mother and her rather formidable mother in law, my favourite gran.
My mother’s fish cakes were made with canned sardines in tomato sauce. Lucky Star Pilchards. Very South African. She used to mash-up a tin or two, mix in finely chopped onion and Worcester sauce, with the same amount of self-raising flour and an egg or two, sometimes with leftover mashed potato, and dropped the soft batter onto a hot oiled pan, a sardine blini of sorts. We had those for lunch sometimes. Oh, and there was a time when my mom bought in bulk these squares of cutlets of frozen hake: each individually wrapped. When she was on diet. Those sometimes made it into fish cocktails served very adventurously at dinners she sometimes catered for.
I think my father did not really like eating fish. Which is why we did not really have a lot of fish dishes at home. That, and the unavailability of fresh fish. Unless it was self caught. Rock cod, Cape Salmon, Yellow Tail, Grunter, Steenbras, even Catfish and Carp: I remember many seaside and riverside holidays with my father’s parents: my Oupa John was a keen fisherman: he had all the gear: the rods and reels and leather “bucket”: a contraption which he wore around his groin and where he could rest the end of his rod in as he reeled in a fighting fish. A ritual which was closed from myself and women, except to watch(sometimes) or wait mostly, for the men to come home with the catch slung over shoulders by two fingers hooked into gills, sometimes slapping at heels if there has been a really big one!
I, however, go and buy fish at a favourite fish monger down the road (far enough to drive though: this is Johannesburg). No scorpion fish, no gurnard today: apparently sometimes they appear on the crushed ice of the display counters. And although I have been to France a couple of times, I have not been to Marseille: the only place to have bouillabaisse apparently!
And tonight in my house. Soon. A couple of hard, high heat cooking, minutes away.