Mission Bouillabaisse

Mission Bouillabaisse
Rob Curran

By Rob Curran

Recipe for a Denton Food Writer, or 6/7 of a Week in Provence


  • One middle-aged writer, at something of a loss for intrepid assignments 
  • Three close relatives
  • One credit card (preferably with a large dollar limit, and a balance-transfer safety hatch.)
  • One week in a Provence Airbnb (maison Claire in Carbriere de Provence, AKA Paradise)
  • One cookbook, preferably La Cuisine Provençal d'Aujourd'hui by Florence de Andreis  (Merci, Claire)
  • Three heaping table-spoons of chutzpah


Get a cheap transatlantic ticket. When you are lugging your tennis racquet, ukulele and other “hand” luggage (in a manner that makes it underarm luggage) through Icelandic customs and halfway across the Reykjavik airport at 4 am on every time zone, even though your London plane is parked right next to your Boston plane, this ticket might not feel so inexpensive. Keep the lavender fields and cypress-fringed swimming pools of Provence in your mind’s eye as you bump every passenger between seats 1A and 52F with your entire-upper-body luggage. It’s worth it, I promise.

Stop off a night or two in Montpellier to drop off any teenage daughters you may have who are going to French-exchange programs. Hopefully, they will talk to their French families more than they talk to yours! Get lost in the beautiful streets because you’re too cheap to pay for international cell-phone service and you can’t read street maps, just don’t get lost in a loop, in which case you will see the same beautiful street over and over again and its beauty will gradually start to wear on you. Try the price-fixe steak place, helpfully called “Entrecote,” or “Steak.” Inform the waitress that you are a bread family. Leave two pounds heavier and several degrees happier than you ever were before.  

Check into Maison de Claire in Cabriere d’Avignon, a little slice of paradise with its own pool shaded by an ancient cypress tree.

Get the whole tourist thing out of the way on the first day in Provence. Leaving a trail of speed cameras papping in your wake, careen through the Popes’ palace in Avignon, the Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard and the colosseum in Nimes. Your jet-lagged family will be the most suggestible at this time. This is tourism, Bill-Cosby style. One thing to look out for: do not drive through the cute gate in the city walls into the medieval historic center of Avignon. Apparently, the Popemobiles in the 14th century Avignon papacy were about as wide as one of those tiny Fiat town cars. Even after pulling in the wing mirrors on your obese SUV, you will feel constantly in danger of getting stuck in the throat of Avignon’s stone alley like a giant chunk of baguette. The gendarme will have to come with a barge pole, you will feel, to dislodge you. While your parking television beeps like an emergency room, your GPS will keep repeating “Arrived!” as if the popes slept rough on a five-foot wide alley.. (Word to the TomTom/Apple map makers: it’s the one with the thousand-seater dining room and the 35-story lookout tower that’s been at the same address for seven hundred years.) Behind you, an incensed Fiat driver will gesticulate their wonder at your slowness, while ahead of you a peloton of tourists and students will steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the traffic jam behind them. At some stage you will barrel down a one-way street towards a cop car.     

Avignon is a breeze compared to Nimes, however. Nimes traffic feels like the era of Charles De Gaullist French bigotry never ended. At one stage, a man may pull out into the oncoming lane in a De Gaulle era Peugeot, lacking only a Gaulloise hanging from his contemptuously parted lips. He will delight in simultaneously disrespecting the female driver he is overtaking and almost killing a foreigner. He will respond to your shocked expression with a nonchalant two-fingered salute. You and the female driver will be left to shake our heads in bemused disbelief at the old-school bigotry.

Assuming you make it out of the whistlestop tour alive, you’ll be ready for the Tuesday market at Gorde. Gorde’s street layout was planned around the same time the popes were getting their bellies trapped between the walls of Avignon. Seen across the valley, it could be a citadel preparing for 14th century siege machines. Once you have wound your way into town, you will want to adopt my longtime market strategy. Chat to the person at the very first stall that catches your eye, and then, rather than offend them by walking away after your chat, spend your entire budget at their stall. In my case, I was fortunate that the person fleecing me was in the spice business. Herbs and spices are the core of most dishes, but particularly of Bouillabaisse, the legendary French soup that’s most closely associated with the southern region of Provence. The saffron is the backbone of the whole thing, giving the broth its deep red tint and a meaty flavor as strong as an ox’s back; the fennel balances the saffron flavor with its toothpaste-advertisement freshness; and ground red chili pepper spices the whole thing up as part of the rouille sauce that’s served on the side. If it were not for these herbs and spices, bouillabaisse would just be a pile of boiled fish.

You will also need some locally grown garlic and onion, and some of the excellent olive oil produced in Provence. And, naturally, two baguettes: one to serve as the croutons for the soup and the other to spread the rouille mayonnaise sauce onto and dip in the soup.

The fishmonger in Coustellet is your next stop. This experience is less like going to the grocery store and more like a combination of a spa and a luxury-car dealership. Once he knows you are making bouillabaisse, he will not rest until you have at least four different types of fish for your broth. There’s the St. Pierre, or John Dory, a classic white flaky fish sold whole; creamy, thick filets of turbot; something that puffs up on the boil that might be grouper; clams the size of baby’s fists (inside shells large enough to accommodate Venus); and crayfish, so large they look like teenage lobsters.

There are many steps so you will forget one or two, possibly pouring cold water over the whole mixture after you’ve carefully marinated and pan-heated it instead of boiling water. You might struggle to render the olive-oil mayonnaise for the rouille (luckily, the market-lady in Gorde sold you the cheat powder, the kind that you can mix with store-bought mayonnaise.) It’s your first bouillabaisse, so it won’t be perfect. Remember that your broth doesn’t have to be perfect. Like French onion soup, your broth is just the dressing for the centerpiece of the dish: the impossibly yummy french bread submerged in, and dipped into your bouillabaisse. The taste of the crouton turning spongy in the piquant fish broth; the sensation of not knowing whether to lunge for the sliver of white fish or the sauce-slathered bread or the salty broth, or to somehow get all three into the same mouthful; the different textures of the meaty clam, the chunky crayfish tail and the delicate fish flesh. All this will stay with you until you get a chance to come back for Mission Bouillabaisse 2: The Ghost Fish.