MARSEILLE, France — In this ancient port city on the Mediterranean, there is no escaping the dark, hot, earthy fish concoction known as bouillabaisse.
All around the Vieux Port, restaurants with multilingual menus lure tourists with the promise of an authentic taste of the city’s signature dish. One advertises in bright white lights a “bouillabaisse royale” with lobster on the side; another features a “petite” bouillabaisse at a bargain price. A third has created a “milkshake of bouillabaisse,” while yet another proposes a “bouillabaisse hamburger,” a fish fillet in a bun accompanied by fish soup and French fries.
Newsstands sell postcards bearing a recipe for bouillabaisse in French and English. Shops offer jars of concentrated bouillabaisse stock and prepared rouille, a sharp, garlicky mayonnaise with olive oil and a blend of saffron and other spices that is used to enliven the bouillabaisse broth.
In truth, few native Marseillaises eat bouillabaisse, and certainly only at home, never in a restaurant. Many snicker at those who come here and want the dish. The most inventive cuisine in the city these days, they say, is the pizza prepared on food trucks and the couscous served in North African restaurants.
Bouillabaisse sometimes seems as old-fashioned as coq au vin or blanquette de veau. Here, and all over France, it is often said you can no longer find a classic rendition of the dish, which is something between a soup and a stew.
Yet there is also a rumor that bouillabaisse survives, especially in this city, which is celebrating its food this year with an initiative called Marseille Provence Gastronomy 2019 that includes cooking lessons, dinner concerts, wine-tastings, art exhibits and markets. To mark the occasion, a group of elementary-school students painted two large outdoor “bouillabaisse” murals featuring the rockfish necessary for the dish.
So when I decided to seek out and taste the real thing, I came to Marseille.
The search wasn’t easy, as bouillabaisse is steeped in myths, tradition and gastronomic polemics.
The origin of the dish is the stuff of legends. One has it that Venus, the Roman goddess of love, invented bouillabaisse to put her husband, Vulcan, to sleep so she could be with her paramour Mars. Many food historians speculate that bouillabaisse is a descendant of kakavia, a traditional soup of the ancient Greeks, who colonized Marseille in about 600 B.C.
It developed over the centuries as a one-pot meal in which poor fishermen threw rockfish — several species of sea creatures, most of them ugly and at one time unsellable — fresh off the docks into a large iron caldron of boiling fish stock to feed the family. By the late 18th century, a version was served in restaurants.
In 1966, the New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne called bouillabaisse “a dish that is always good for controversy.” The debate over what constitutes a real bouillabaisse grew so fierce that a group of 11 local restaurateurs drew up the Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter in the 1980s, codifying the ingredients and preparation allowed.
Even now, there is no official governmental protection for the name bouillabaisse as there is for so many other French comestibles, from Champagne to Brie de Meaux.
Then there is downright trickery. Several years ago, an investigation by a French television channel revealed that many of the restaurants around the Vieux Port used processed ingredients and frozen fish of indeterminate origin.
On this visit, I stayed far away from the port area, where I had eaten my first, mediocre bouillabaisse years ago.
I also avoided the deconstructed, dressed-up and expensive interpretation at Gérald Passédat’s Michelin-starred restaurant Le Petit Nice, on the scraggly shoreline about two miles away. My Bouille Abaisse, as he calls it, consists of three courses: a raw shellfish starter, a selection of classic bite-size fish fillets covered in a light saffron-infused broth, and finally, a selection of deep-sea fish in a thick soup adorned with small crabs. With dessert, the price tag for the meal comes to 250 euros, about $280.
Marseille is a sprawling city that includes 111 neighborhoods called quartiers-villages, and I headed to one of them, the vacation spot Carry-le-Rouet, 20 miles northwest of the Vieux Port, to try what is reputed to be one of the best traditional versions in town.
Bouillabaisse was never meant to be served in restaurants on demand; the dish is too expensive and difficult to make for a restaurant to gamble on the chance that a customer might want it.
So I ordered it two days in advance from a popular restaurant. The setting was picture-perfect, an open-air balcony overlooking a small port full of pleasure boats. But the meal was disappointing — the broth was a pretty shade of orange, but tepid and too tomatoey. Its side dish of half a chewy lobster was certainly not authentic.
Success came when I turned to a friend who knows the area. Friends of his who live along the coast suggested another restaurant, and spoke to the chef, who only occasionally makes bouillabaisse but agreed to prepare it for us.
On a hot Sunday in June, I drove 40 minutes east along the coastal road to the small fishing hamlet Les Goudes, the farthest point in Marseille before you hit the hidden inlets known as calanques. There is no post office or bank, and the tiny Roman Catholic church is seldom open for services.
Clusters of small cottages, some of them no more than shacks, cling to the hillsides. Some were built in the days before building codes, and function with exposed electrical wiring. Many of the families who live here go back generations.
Here, the outdoor terrace of L’Esplaï du Grand Bar des Goudes is perched on the rocks overlooking a tiny fishing port; it is the place where native Marseillaises come for a long, languorous Sunday lunch.
The restaurant was filled with the smell of garlic and the sounds of loud chatter — even singing. (This is not Paris, where voices are kept low and soft.) From here, the clientele can see the main port, on the other side of the bay, where the big cruise ships dock.
The chef, Christophe Thullier, prepared his bouillabaisse the classic way. He made a stock using tiny scaled and gutted rockfish, fennel, tomatoes, a mixture of spices, olive oil and water. He boiled the stock furiously for 20 minutes until it thickened, then turned it down to a simmer before straining in a sieve.
At least five types of whole rockfish had marinated for several hours in white wine, olive oil, thyme, rosemary, saffron, paprika, turmeric and lots of garlic and saffron.
Part of the ritual of bouillabaisse is the presentation of the marinated fish before they are filleted and thrown into the simmering broth “à la minute” — at the last minute. The word bouillabaisse derives from the Provençal bouï-abaisso, meaning “when the pot boils, lower the fire.”
Eric Para, the restaurant’s co-owner, brought a huge platter of fish to the table, including Saint Pierre (John Dory); vive (weever), a small eel-like creature with poisonous spines; galinette (gurnard); grondin rouge (red gurnard), congre (conger eel), rouget (red mullet) and both red and lean white varieties of rascasse, an ugly, spiny sea creature known as scorpion fish and an absolute must for any bouillabaisse worth its name. (“Alone, it is not particularly good eating, but it is the soul of bouillabaisse,” wrote the great food writer Waverley Root.)
With an index finger, Mr. Para pulled up the poisonous spiny crest hidden inside the head of the vive. “If it pricks you, it can give you a fever,” he said.
“Can it kill you?” I asked.
“No, of course not!” he replied, his derisory tone suggesting that I must be an idiot.
The broth was served first, with slices of crisply toasted baguette, whole cloves of raw garlic and rouille. The tradition here is to rub raw garlic onto the toasts, spoon generous dollops of the rouille on them and float them in the broth. Then came a second course: the just-cooked fish fillets with some broth ladled over them.
The soup, opaque and mud-colored was heavy, viscous and gritty, with small bits of fish settling on the bottom of the bowl.
“This is not for the faint of heart,” one of the other diners said. “This is not a dish appreciated by the young.”
Mr. Para concurred. “It’s an acquired taste, especially when you make it the correct way,” he said. “Frankly, for a special meal at home, I prefer a côte de boeuf.”
He had the highest praise for Mr. Passédat of Le Petit Nice, who is known as the “godfather” of the yearlong food initiative in Marseille and the ultimate cheerleader for bouillabaisse. “He is the star of the region and an artist,” Mr. Para said. “We’re not artists here.”
Food will always be better at its place of origin, and bouillabaisse purists have always believed that there is a mystical connection between the dish and the city.
“I always feel that part of Marseille itself is cooked right into the bouillabaisse,” Julia Child said on her television show “The French Chef” in 1970. “You can somehow just taste the flavor, the color, the excitement of that old port.”
Perhaps that explains why, however hard it may be to find, bouillabaisse is likely to live on.
L’Esplaï du Grand Bar des Goudes, 29 Rue Désiré Pelaprat (Rue du Chasseur), Marseille, France; grandbardesgoudes.fr
Sophie Stuber contributed reporting.