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.

Terror of the Deep

Every once in a while, I’ll encounter a piece of writing that will nettle down deep inside my mind and stay there.  After enough time passes, I begin to grow around these words until they become part of the structure of my identity, like the fence that has been encased by a living tree trunk.  In high school, it was a version of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  In college, it was John Donne’s scientifically accurate metaphysical analogies to his emotional life and Emerson’s “Self Reliance.”  And, completely unexpectedly, in the last five years, it was an article published in the Fall 2012 edition of Gastronomica, “Swimming with Spears” by Tetshiko Endo.

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This article did a serious number on me, and I’ve thought about it several times a week since I first read it back in 2012.  The author writes about spear fishing, about hunting and killing his dinner in the alien world of the ocean, a place where the author could just as easily become prey himself.

To dive beneath the surface of the sea is to confront a power and immensity like none other on this earth.  In the belly of such a thing, it is impossible not to know, or understand on some level, the inherent fragility and meanness of one’s own existence. When death is this tangible, it’s clear that only the slightest of fate’s serendipities separates you from the creature dangling off the end of your spear.

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Three times Tetshiko Endo describes either the world beneath the surface or the creatures who inhabit it that eventually as “otherworldly.”  Because it is another world.  The creatures who live there that we end up eating are aliens.

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In the mind of the Western diner, there is perhaps no food so divorced from its natural, living appearance as the fish.  How many people can identify a herring while it is still swimming?  …There are, of course, some things one is better off not knowing such as the true appearance of a monkfish or, worse, that of the merrily named nightmare the John Dory.

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And then, a few weeks ago, a beautiful boy threw down a culinary challenge to cook the most horrifying seafood the Korean market had to offer.  He named it Terror of the Sea.  We gathered assorted claws and appendages and shells, and I steamed it all in white wine, mirin, miso, ginger, red chili pepper, sesame seed oil, and soy sauce.

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I need to know what’s beneath the surface… And so we search, down among the ‘unspeakable foundation’ not for sunken galleon or Spanish doubloons, but for delicious sea creatures that shimmer in the ice of the seafood case.

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Tetsuhiko Endo descends into the depths of the ocean to hunt his dinner in an unfamiliar world.  He sees the world these alien creatures belong to.  For me, just visiting the seafood section and seeing all the alien creatures on display is enough to shock me out of whatever gastronomic comfort zone I weave for myself out of edible leaves and potatoes and birds.

[The sea] remains a place of monsters, real and imagined- though these are often indistinguishable from each other.  Homer’s Scylla, for example, was a twelve-armed, shoal-sized [female] leviathan of pure fiction, but the ten-tentacled giant squid is estimated to reach forty feet, and it battles sperm whales at depths that would crush many submarines.

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There is a boundary, a surface, that not many penetrate.  The boundary between the sunlit lands of consciousness, and the dark, watery realm of the subconscious.  Living things occupy both worlds, living beings that we eat.

To grope down into the bottom of the sea after [the creatures]; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing.

me, quoting Tetsuhiko Endo, quoting Herman Melville

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I ate this. And fed it to others.

Grampa Leet: A Memorial

Last Sunday night, I got back into London from stromping all around the Lake District.  I was tired, sore, and happy.  I could still see the fell and the the hills punctuated with sharp moss-covered rocks every time I closed my eyes, and I could still smell the smoke of campfires.  I opened up an email from my dad entitled “Grand father,” and I learned that my father’s father had died that morning.

I will be here, an ocean away, while my family is mourning together and lowering Grampa Leet’s body into the Kentucky dirt.  Tonight is the wake.  Tomorrow is the funeral.  And I am here, at a very charming pub called The Dove on the banks of the Thames where the words to “Rule Britannia” were penned in 1740.  This is my memorial for Herbert Leet Newton.



Chapter 1:  Tomatoes

Grampa Leet grew tomatoes on the Newton land, land that became Newton land sometime after The Dove became a pub.  Grampa Leet lived in a barn that he built himself at the end of a road that bore his name.  He turned all the tomatoes he couldn’t eat into tomato juice.  My earliest memory of Grandpa Leet is him cooking breakfast in his screened in outdoor kitchen wearing a plaid shirt with the front unbuttoned, drinking his tomato juice out of a Mason jar as the sun burned the early morning mist off his fields.  After the war, Grampa Leet refused a free place at West Point so that he could go and try to scratch out a living from the same dirt his father farmed, and his father’s father farmed.  He failed.

Chapter 2:  Soy Sauce

Grampa Leet was a sniper in the Korean War.  He positioned his rifle according to instructions to his living targets that he couldn’t see  And, for better or for worse, he hit those targets.  When Grampa Leet blew out his eardrums, he had the chance to go home and collect a Purple Heart.  He refused.  He didn´t want to leave his comrades, who were all the other boys he grew up with in small town Kentucky.  When he did return, Grampa brought back with him a profound aversion to soy sauce.  He wouldn´t even touch a soy sauce bottle with his naked skin.  For Grampa Leet, soy sauce tasted like Korea, it tasted like war, it tasted like the faceless humans his bullets hit.

Chapter 3:  Fish

Grampa Leet was a fisherman.  My mom once told me the story of the time she went fishing with Grampa Leet.  Dad had abandoned her to go do some rural masculine group activity- probably shooting buckshot at empty beer cans in the woods somewhere- and Grampa invited Mom to go fishing.  They didn´t catch anything, but they both got shit-faced and giggly on copious amounts of wine and Schlitz.

The day after I heard about Grampa´s death, I ordered fish and chips in his memory.  “Are you going to go for the triumvirate?” asked my friend when he learned about my second fish and chips run in less than five days.  Almost certainly, although I don´t think Grampa ever fished for cod.

Chapter 4:  Schiltz

Grampa Leet drank enough Schlitz beer in his lifetime to fill a swiming pool.  Schlitz is your typical light nothing beer.  Think Pabst Blue Ribbon, Natty Light, Lonestar.  He stopped drinking beer when his doctor demanded it a few years ago, but he never stopped smoking the unfiltered Marlboro Reds he started smoking illicitly behind some barn or other when he was 12 years old.

Chapter 5:  Oysters

Grampa Leet loved oysters.  When Dad would travel to a particularly good oyster locale for work, sometimes he´d buy a case of oysters to bring back with him.  This case was enough to summon Grampa Leet from down from Kentucky to our Mississippi to eat the entire case of oysters with his son.  The first raw oyster I ate was on our deck over the Bridgetown lake in Mississippi.  Some twenty years ago, Dad wedged a shell open with a knife, and I looked dubiously at the transluscent flesh inside.  “Look at that, Leroy,” Dad said.  He always calls me Leroy.  Or Annileroy.  “That is a pristine oyster.”  I looked over at Grampa Leet.  In the time it had taken Dad to persuade that first raw oyster into me, Grampa had quaffed five or so.  And I ate my pristine oyster.

Chapter 6:  Cornbread

The best thing Grampa ever cooked for me was white cornmeal cornbread, fried in melted butter on a cast-iron skillet pancake-style.  He made it once by chance, and then once more because I begged.

Chapter 7:  Spaghetti

Because Grampa Leet´s health was on the decline, a few months ago Dad went up to Kentucky to help if he could and to see his dad.  My father made his father spaghetti from fresh tomatoes.  Later, when Dad was telling me about it, he said that the spaghetti would probably be the last meal he cooked for his dad.  The truth is, my dad has been in this position before- feeding a dying man, and he knew from experience that one thing that could kindle the ashes of a dying man´s hunger was spaghetti with homemade sauce from fresh tomatoes.

I was a little surprised that Grampa went for it.  He was such a meat and potatoes and over-boiled vegetable kind of guy (incidentally, he would have loved England).  Spaghetti seems a little exotic for Grampa Leet.  But then again, he always had that deep-rooted and almost sacred love of a good tomato.

“Did he like it?” I asked.

“He loved it.”