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More culinary research for book #3…

Why do I like soupe de poissons? OK, it’s “just” fish soup and sounds more fancy in French, but there’s something magical and elusive about it. It’s a bit of a culinary enigma.

Not bad if you’re writing a gastronomic detective mystery …

Soupe de poissons is so different to the typical fish chowders you get in Ireland; they tend to be clear or creamy and milky, with chunks of fish here and there, flashes of parsley, a few Dublin Bay prawns perhaps, and the pinky orange flesh and dark mackerel-skin blues of a mussel shell or two.

Soupe de poissons looks nothing like that. It’s not a collage or mosaic like a chowder. It’s more minimalist: a singlular uniformity, with a smooth, thick, rich consistency, and a deep rusty red or dark brown colour.

It may look plain, but this is deceptive, because it combines many different flavours that add up to more than the sum of its parts.

And it all starts off as something quite unpromising: with the last of the leftovers on the fish stall, the final bits of fish that the fishermen couldn’t even give away, the tiniest sprats that are hardly worth gutting, and the tiddlers caught by the rockpooler kids with their nylon nets.

Then – the most magical and mysterious bit for me – the very bones of the fish (heads, tails and all) are somehow transformed into a rich soup that ends up on the menus of many a bistro and family-run restaurant around the Med.

French fish soups in different sized jarsSoupe de poissons is perfect peasant comfort food: thrifty, tasty, yet quite classy too. It’s a close cousin of bouillabaisse (food trivia: “bouï abaisso” in Provençal, or boil and press, “bout et abaisse” or – in my house – “boil and mouli”).

Despite its traditional roots of rustic frugality it can be made in industrial quantities. In modern factories, ending up in glass jars, tins and even tetrapaks

These readymade versions in the local food shops and supermarkets of the south of France are so good  that I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re served up by some of these resto and bistros.

And why not?

Sometimes  the heavier solids become separated from the clear liquid, like a pathologist’s sample in a centrifuge. Do not be alarmed; simply give it all a good shake to restore it to its uniform reddish orange glory.

So how do you make your own? Here’s a video of the genuine French article…

My fish soup recipe

And here’s my slightly simpler, cheapskate approach.

First, ask your local friendly fishmonger for an assortment of fish heads, fish bones and fish offcuts. A good kilo of them. The flesh in the cheeks and the gelatinous stuff will give fantastic flavour, texture and richness.

For such occasions I also like to stockpile “leftover” prawn shells (and lobster or crab shells too) in the freezer. When making fish soups and fish stocks they are your secret weapon.

Every soupe de poissons will be different. Rather than the rock fish (poissons de roche) of the Mediterranean, an Irish version would be based more on our common Atlantic fish (mullet, gurnard, some plaice bones perhaps, salmon heads if you can get them). But never use very oily fish such as mackerel. Just don’t go there.

The ingredients

  • Olive oil
  • 1 onion
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 stick of celery
  • Some fennel trimmings
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Some sprigs of thyme
  • A few parsley stalks
  • 3 cloves of garlic, peeled, lightly crushed
  • 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds (optional)
  • 2-3 medium tomatoes – or a tin of plum tomatoes
  • A pinch of saffron – if you can afford it
  • 1 glass of white wine
  • A good teaspoon of tomato purée
  • 1kg of fish bones, heads etc
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • A splash of pastis (e.g. Pernod)

The method

Important note: never overcook fish bones when making fish stock or fish soup. Keep to a strict 20-minute rule: assume that fish bones will turn the stock bitter after 20 minutes or so.

Optional first step: if using shellfish shells, you could put them on a roasting tray, drizzle with olive oil and roast them in a hot oven until nicely browned. Then…

  1. Finely dice the vegetables.
  2. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the veg, fry gently for five minutes until softened but not coloured.
  3. Add the thyme, bay leaf, parsley stalks, garlic, fennel seeds (if using) and tomatoes. If you’re using tinned rather than fresh tomatoes, remember to give everything a taste later on – it might be worth adding a pinch of sugar to mellow their acidity. Stir, continue to cook for two minutes.
  4. Add the saffron (if using) and white wine, let it bubble for a minute to burn off the alcohol. Add the tomato purée, stir well, cook for another three minutes.
  5. Add the tomato puree and finally the fish bones (roughly chopped if they are long and awkward) and continue to cook for two minutes.
  6. Pour over enough water to cover the bones. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to a simmer. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.
  7. Continue to simmer for a maximum of 20 minutes, skimming the surface of the mixture of any scum.
  8. Add ladlefuls of the fish soup mixture to a food processor, blitz in batches for 10 seconds until well combined.
  9. Strain each batch of blended soup through a fine sieve into a clean saucepan. Push the mixture through the sieve with the back of the ladle to extract all that liquid goodness.
  10. Or, if you are lucky to have a mouli, skip steps 8 and 9 and use the mouli instead of the food processor/sieve

Warm up the strained soup (and any reserved fish pieces or prawns if using) over a medium heat and add a dash of pastis. Ladle the soup into large serving bowls. Sprinkle with garnish (see below) and serve with plenty of slices of fresh baguettes or homemade brown soda bread. Bon appetit!

Suggestions for the garnish

  • Chopped parsley
  • Finely grated cheese – something along the lines of Gruyère, though a white cheddar will do if you’re stuck
  • Croûtons rubbed with garlic
  • Rouille

Rouille (literally “rust”) is a gloopy sauce that often comes in a ramekin with your soupe de poissons or your bouillabaisse. It’s a bit like a spicy mayonnaise, and usually involves egg yolks, garlic, olive oil, roasted red pepper, smoked paprika, saffron and sometimes breadcrumbs.