Bouillabaisse and The Count of Monte Cristo: The Background

Calanque de Morgiou, just outside of the city of Marseilles.  Photo by Eugénie Peigné.

Like all great literature, The Count of Monte Cristo includes essential elements of life, including food and revenge.   And, the author,  Alexander Dumas, was a gourmand, like all great French.  Since I teach the abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo, I never felt the urge to read the unabridged version of the novel translated by Robin Buss until this last semester.  It turns out a lot of food-eating was cut from the abridged version, along with the pages and pages of enriched, tangled, meandering lines of subplot.  Take this scene, where one bad guy plies another bad guy with bouillabaisse to soften him up before another round of high-powered blackmail:

“‘Come, come, now,’ said Caderousse.  ‘Don’t get angry, dear boy! There now, I’ve thought of you: just look what a good breakfast we’ll have; all things that you like!’

Breathing in, Andrea could indeed detect the smell of cooking, its gross odours not without charm for a hungry stomach: there was that mixture of fresh oil and garlic which indicates the inferior breed of provencal cuisine, with additionally a hint of breaded fish… All this was exhaled from two covered tureens keeping hot on two stoves and a dish bubbling in the oven of an iron cooker.”

Alexander Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo.

From some of the diction in this excerpt, a reader could assume that Dumas snubbed his Parisian nose at the flavors of Southern France.  “Gross odours” is not appetite-whetting word choice.  However, Dumas seems to have been a fan of these gross odours.  He has not one, but two different recipes for bouillabaisse in his Culinary Dictionaryincluding this one he allegedly took from the legendary Monsieur Robion:

Dumas’ Rendition of M. Roubion’s Bouillabaisse Recipe

Take 6 or more varieties of fish and cut them into pieces.  Heat in a casserole 1 or 2 glasses of oil, depending on the size of the bouillabaisse you wish to make, with chopped onions, garlic, parsley, tomatoes, bay leaf, some orange peel, pepper, and fine spices.  Add your fish, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of saffron.  Cover with boiling water and boil hard for 15 minutes, by which time the water should be reduced by a quarter.  To serve, pour the bouillon over pieces of bread in the soup tureen and serve the fish in another platter. (Recipe from Monsieur Roubion, restauranteur at Marseille.)

Last year, at exactly this time, I felt hungry for bouillabaisse.  Even the abridged version of the novel is enough to evoke the landscape of the South of France, which in turn is enough to create a craving for bouillabaisse and pastis.  Probably because I often show this clip to my students every year to help set the scene of the novel:

Last year, I fed my bouillabaisse hunger by making Mimi Thorisson’s recipe from one of my Christmas presents: A Kitchen in France.  Mimi’s recipe is far more involved than Monsieur Robion’s recipe.  There are four different dimensions of the recipe.  It’s a new year, and if ever there is a time for all the pomp and circumstance of Mimi’s recipe, that time is surely now.  I’ll try out Roubion’s recipe another time, perhaps as a fancier than usual but still manageable mid-week meal.  However, there are some things I’d like to borrow from Roubion- particulary his orange peel and “fines spices.”  I will do some sort of fusion of the two recipes, and call it my own.    And we’ll see what fish I end up with from the Korean fish market on Saturday.

Mimi Thorisson’s Bouillabaisse Recipe, Adapted Slightly

The Ingredients:

  • olive oil
  • 2 onions
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • fennel seeds
  • 1.5 pounds monkfish, boned, with the trimmings on the side
  • 1.5 pounds sea bream, boned, with the trimmings on the side
  • 1.5 pounds red mullet, boned, with the trimmings on the side
  • 1 fennel bulb, trimmed and chopped
  • 1 leek, white part only
  • 1 bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • chives, chervil, tarragon, 3 bay leaves, tied in a bundle with a leek leaf
  • 8 ounces of quartered tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1/3 cup pastis
  • salt and pepper
  • 6-8 medium potatoes, peeled and cliced
  • a baguette
  • 1 large garlic clove, halved
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon Piment d’Espelette or mild chile powder

Table of Contents:

  1. The Soup
  2. The Fish
  3. The Croutons
  4. The Sauce

Chapter 1:  The Soup

Heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Saute the oinions, garlic, and fennel seeds for 3 minutes.  add all the fish trimmings, including bones, the fennel, leek, half of the parsley, the wrapped herbs bouquet, the tomatoes, tomato paste, half of the saffron, the pastis, and salt and pepper.  Add enough water to completely cover the ingredients and bring to a boil, then cover, lower the heat, and simmer for 20-25 minutes.

Blend the soup with a hand mixer.  Strain through a sieve into a large saucepan, and discard the solids. Simmer the soup for 15 more minutes and season with salt and pepper.

Chapter 2:  The Fish

In a large wide pot, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the potatoes and season with salt and pepper.  Spoon a few ladles of the soup over the potatoes, enough to cover them entirely.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

Arrange the fish on top of the potatoes, and sprinkle with the remaining saffron and some salt and pepper.  Add a few more ladles of the fish soup, until the fish is entirely covered, and bring to a simmer.  Poach the fish until cooked through, 10-12 minutes.

Chapter 3: The Croutons

Preheat the oven 400 degrees.  Slice the baguette into 1/2 inch pieces.  Rub each piece of bread with the garlic, then cut into 1/2 inch pieces.  Put on a small baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss well.  Toast in the oven until crisp, 5-8 minutes.

Chapter 4:  The Rouille

In a mixer, or with a vigorous whisk, combine the egg yolks, mustard, garlic, remaining saffron (1/4 teaspoon), and piment d’Espelette in the bowl and season with salt.  Gradually drizzle in 1 cup of olive oil, a little bit at a time, whisking until the sauce is thick.  Season with salt and pepper.

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