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"Another Winter Menu"

(John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure;
Henry Holt: New York, 1996)

In this gorgeous riff on fish chowders (the "winter menu" is Goat's Cheese Salad, Fish Stew, and Lemon Tart), Lanchester's monstrous narrator Tarquin Winot takes readers, really, to all the most unusual places.

...The town, Paris; the restaurant, La Coupole; the cast of characters, my mother and me and our Parisian public and an attendant chorus of bustling solicitous waiters; the meal, a fish soup.... It may have been in those moments that food crystallized for me as a lifelong passion, and that a commitment to a particular modus vivendi was decided, as she smiled at me across the remains of the tureened soup and devastated rouille and said: "One day, Chéri, I am sure you will do great things."

It will therefore surprise no one to learn that all fish soups and stews have always had an especially high place in my esteem and affections. I have a particularly strong identification with that recipe which fuses the base with the noble, the leftover catch at the bottom of the fisherman's net (the primary source for the fish in this dish as in most fish stews and soups) with the highest degree of esculence, delicacy, and artistry; which brings together the unsalable minnows of the Mediterranean with the fabulous luxuriousness of saffron (almost as expensive, pound for pound, as gold, for which it can sometimes seem to be a kind of edible simile). A dish rooted in the solid traditions of peasant cookery--nicely exemplified by the fact that the dish is prepared in a single pot, the totemic single pot of European and indeed global peasant cookery, from the subsistence farmer in Connemara to the muzhik of Omsk--but which also has its noble place in the ramifying, allusive grammar of French restaurant cooking, the cuisine that has in its home country reached the greatest degree of approximation to the full complexity of an articulated language; in short, I have always been especially keen on bouillabaisse. As Curnonksy said, "a great dish is the master achievement of countless generations." Bouillabaisse's combination of luxuriousness and practicality, of romance and realism, is positable as characteristic of the Marseillais themselves, who possess in marked degree that habit of seeming to live up to a collective stereotype which is often to be found in the inhabitants of port towns. One thinks of the self-consciously abrasive and warmhearted vitality of Naples, the self-consciously waggish sentimentality of Liverpool, the self-consciously romantic stevedores of Alexandria or even the self-consciously muscular, rude, and truculent dockworkers of old New York. On this spectrum the Marseillais take the place of being self-consciously romantic about how realistic they are, and just as it can seem as if the whole of Liverpool is constantly engaged in the description, celebration, and praise of Scouseness, the Marseillais can appear to be embarked on a permanent project to enumerate, categorize, and enact their own particular brand of forcefully realistic meridionalité. Note that even the name bouillabaisse (from bouillir and abaisser, "boil" and "reduce") strikes a note of swaggering, shrugging, stylized rough practicality, as if to say, "it's a soup--what else are you going to do? It is also present in the story underlying the myth that bouillabaisse was invented by the goddess Aphrodite herself, patron saint and founder of that characterful city; a fiction no doubt superimposed upon the historical truth that Marseille was first settled by the Phoenicians, who were attracted by its conveniently near-rectangular natural harbor (whose heart is still the vieux port); they brought with them their mythology, their lighthouses, and their talent for trading. Aphrodite is said to have created bouillabaisse as a way of getting her husband Hephaestus--the crippled smith, patron of craftsmen and cuckolds--to ingest a large quantity of saffron, a then famous soporific, and so to fall asleep, thus permitting the goddess to set off for an assignation with her inamorato Ares (who has always struck me as being, of all the characters in the Greek pantheon, the most unattractively sweaty). The Greek myths, like the Old Testament, do have the virtue of describing the way people actually behave.

My research has failed to confirm or deny the scientific basis of this folk belief about saffron, which is, by the way, a flower, consisting as it does of the stigmas (the pollen-trapping part) of Crocus sativus. It takes more than four thousand of the laboriously (manually) harvested stigmas to provide a single ounce of the spice, the popularity of which is confirmed by the name of the town Saffron Walden, now no doubt a dreary market town with the standard appurtenances of lounging skinheads swigging cider on the steps of the graffiti-defaced war memorial, and a punitive one-way system. I have never bothered to visit Saffron Walden, notwithstanding the fact that it is not a big detour off the route I usually take from my pied-à-terre in Bayswater to the cottage in Norfolk. This part of England, I often think, must have been at its most comfortable during the period of Roman occupation, when toga-clad Romano-Britons could stroll through properly laid out paved streets past clean buildings to the baths, where they could relax with a leisurely dip, a gossip, and perhaps a glass or two of locally grown wine, confident in the knowledge that they were protected from their own countrymen by handsome, polite, heavily armed legionaries. The important thing to remember about saffron from the cook's point of view is that it is enough to use just one or two threads; any more will risk imparting a bitter, "socky" flavor.

There is considerable debate about whether it is possible to make bouillabaisse away from the Mediterranean and the rocky coves that provide this once humble dish with its wondrous variety of what my father used to refer to as "little finny blighters." My own view, which I relate after the consumption of many gloomy so-called bouillabaisses in northern climes, is that the dish does not travel or translate but that, when the basic principles are understood, it can be made to adapt.

Take two pounds of assorted rockfish, ideally bought somewhere on the Mediterranean in a quayside negotiation with a leathery grandfather and grandson team who have spent the long day hauling nets aboard in steep baking coves, their tangible desire for the day's first pastis in no way accelerating the speed or diminishing the complexity of the bargaining process. There must be at least five different kinds of fish, including of course the indispensable rascasse, an astonishingly ugly fish whose appearance always reminds me of our Norwegian cook, Mitthaug. also necessary are gurnard, monkfish/anglerfish/lotte/baudroie (the same thing, baudroie being the Provençal and lotte the French), and a wrasse or two, either the girelle or the wonderfully named vieille coquette, which I first ate in the company of my mother. Clean the fish and chop the big ones into chunks. Organize two glasses of provençale olive oil and a tin of tomatoes; alternatively you can peel, seed, and chop your own tomatoes. Personally, canned tomatoes seem to me to be one of the few unequivocal benefits of modern life. (Dentistry, the compact disk.) In a large, handsome saucepan, sweat two cloves of chopped garlic in one glass of the oil, add the tomatoes and a pinch of saffron; then add six pints of what in England would be chlorinated former effluent (also known as "water") and boil furiously. Put in the firmer textured of the fish and the second glass of oil and boil hard for fifteen minutes. Add the softer textured fish and cook for five minutes. Serve whole fish and big chunks on large soup-plate type plates and serve the broth separately with crouton and rouille. I can't be bothered to go into details about the rouille since my fingers are starting to go wrinkly in the bath here.

Note that bouillabaisse is one of the only fish dishes to be boiled quickly. This is to compel the emulsification of the oil and water; it is in keeping with the Marseillaise origin of the dish that in it oil is not poured over troubled water but violently forced to amalgamate with it. Notice also that bouillabaisse is a controversial dish, a dish which provokes argument and dissent, canonical and noncanonical versions, focusing on issues such as the aforementioned geographically conditioned possibility of making the dish at all, the desirability or otherwise of adding a glass of white wine to the oil-and-water liaison, the importance or unthinkability of including in the dish fennel or orange peel or thyme or cuttlefish ink or severed horses' heads. (On which my personal verdicts are respectively "yes," "no," "yes," "no," "why not," yes if you wish to make the bouillabaisse noire of Martigues," and "only joking.") Some dishes seem to be charged with a psychic energy, a mana, which makes them attract attention, generate interest, stimulate discussion, inspire controversy and debates about authenticity. The same is true of certain artists. Again I am not thinking exclusively of myself.

The conditions and prohibitions with which the making of a successful bouillabaisse is hedged around make it a problematic dish for the home cook, at any rate for the home cook who lives more than an hour or so's drive from the coastline between Toulon and Marseille. My house in the Vaucluse is an hour and forty minutes from Marseille, assuming the good weather which is necessary on the twisting roads of the Lubéron. Other fish soups are less contentious in their composition, a fact that may make them appealing for those who are less beguiled than I am by what Spinoza called "the deep difficulty of excellence." In any case, over the years at my homes in Provence and Norfolk (less often in Bayswater) I have cooked burrida, the hearty and accommodating Genoese specialty; cótriade, the warming and economical potato-oriented Breton dish (sometimes seasoned simply through the addition of seawater); the soothing matelote Normande, of which more very shortly; the exuberant Portuguese fisherman's stew caldeirada, enough to make any one of us into Lusophiles, and graced with the additional blessing of reheatability in the form of the excellent fish hash roupa velha de peixe; the fiery but somehow light, refreshing, life-affirming fish stews of Thailand, spiked with chili and lemongrass and the glamorous but refreshing exoticism of that suddenly convenient country (only hours away!); the paradoxical red-wine--using matelote and raito, the former with its disturbingly phallic and alive seeming eel, the latter with its elusive but comforting taste of cod; the equally coddy Basque ttoro, its origin betrayed by its telltale unpronounceability (my brother was fond of speculating whether values were reversed in Basque versions of the game Scrabble, so that players only won a single point for using letters such as q and x); the crude Greek kakavia and the egg-and-lemon enhanced psarósoupa avgolémeno; the tasty Provençal soupe de poisson with its punchy rouille and promiscuous willingness to accept whatever is put into it (perhaps the most adaptable and portable of all these national soups); the chowders (from chaudiére, stewpot, a word which also refers to the kind of domestic gas boiler whose explosion was to kill my parents) of North America, expressive of that continent in their hearty emphatic blandness; the delicate Bergensk fikesuppe, which the unfortunate Mitthaug used to prepare with great displays of energy in his attempts to get the freshest possible, indeed the freshest imaginable, cod and coley, rising before dawn to go to Billingsgate and returning with fish which, as my father observed, a competent veterinarian ought to have been able to resuscitate; indeed, our own gray little country is almost the only one that fails to have its own indigenous version of fish soup, even the Scots having their surprisingly edible Cullen Skink.

An example of one of the most cookable dishes, and one that manages to retain a certain glamor, is bourride, another preparation deeply charged with memories, in this case of my humble abode in the Vaucluse hinterland village of St-Eustache, hardly more than a shack really, with its five bedrooms and the swimming pool that so added to my popularity with certain of my neighbors....

Right: bourride. I was taught to prepare this dish by Etienne, a French youth on an exchange scheme who came to stay with us during summer holidays, and who educated me in how to make a version of the dish with the local fish available near our Norfolk cottage, using the olive oil he thoughtfully brought with him. Buy and prepare a number of thick pieces of white fish equivalent to the number of guests at table; the fish may be John Dory (engagingly known in French as St-Pierre, from the visible residue on either side of the fish's peculiarly friendly looking head--or is that just me?--of the thumbprint of St. Peter the fisherman) or brill or monkfish or indeed almost anything, with the proviso that if it is to qualify as a bourride sétoise the stew must be composed of monkfish exclusively. (A famous village feud had occurred after an argument about bourride sétoise between fractious in-laws; tempers were raised, insults exchanged, rolling pins brandished, cookbooks consulted, opinions vindicated and hotly rebuffed, and a three-decades-long severing of relations was instituted. Now that's a recipe.) Make stock from fish bones and make an aïoli (recipe later, later); add one more egg yolk per person. Chop two leeks and two shallots and sweat them in oil. Add the fish, pour the stock over, and cook until done or just cooked through--about quarter of an hour. Remove the fish, reduce the sauce by an amount that feels appropriate--one third minimum, two thirds maximum. Then pour in the enriched aïoli, off the heat, and return whisking to the stove until it achieves the texture of thick cream....