When in Rome, you eat pizza. A trip to Tokyo isn't right without sushi. Going to Buenos Aires without gorging on an asado grill is sacrilege.Every city has its dish.So when I find myself in Marseille, I'm determined to uncover the local delicacies. Nothing tastes more like this southern French metropolis than bouillabaisse, a traditional fish dish served as a stew followed by a plate of fish. Or at least that's what I've been told.
Walking along the portside on a warm September afternoon, I ask the fishermen selling the catch from their boats where they would recommend trying it. Bouillabaisse originates from these very waters, as previous generations of fishermen would cook stews using the leftover bony rock fish.My GCSE-standard French just about allows me to buy a baguette and ask for directions so a discussion on Marseille's gastronomic history is somewhat out of reach. C'est la vie.Still, it's going well. One bloke tells me that the Roman goddess Venus used the soup to put husband Vulcan to sleep, allowing her to get down and dirty with fellow god Mars. At least, I think that's what he said.Thankfully a passing student and Marseille native suggests I head to L'Aromat, a restaurant serving bouillabaisse not in its traditional stew format but as a burger.
A little online research tells me she's onto something and after a quick phone call, chef Sylvain Robert invites me to the restaurant for a chat.On a quiet side street off Marseille's waterfront hub Vieux Port, L'Aromat stands as a plainly fronted restaurant with white shuttered windows. There's nothing to suggest this is anything other than a traditional Marseille eatery.As I head inside, accompanied this time by a slightly more fluent French-speaking friend, lunch service is finishing up. The last few customers are making their way out of the door and we're guided downstairs to sample the restaurant's famous bouillabaisse burger.
"It's definitely still on the menu," Robert says. "I think they'd kill me if I tried to take it off."Born in Marseille, Robert was sous chef at 21, head chef at 23, and found himself running a restaurant before he'd made it to 25. While his parents were teachers, he was brought up at the dinner table."My mother, she's Italian, and my father French," he explains. "We grew up to love food, both cooking and eating. It's why I do what I do today."Robert's menu pays homage to these influences, as well as the flavours brought to the port town by ships from Spain and North Africa. At the centre though, is the bouillabaisse burger."Bouillabaisse is emblematic of Marseille," Robert explains, as he shows me a folder of press cuttings from his years as head chef. "The fishermen would cook it with the small rock fish nobody would buy although today, somewhat ironically, they're the most expensive fish at the market."The bouillabaisse would be served as two courses. First, a fish broth with croutons and rouille, a luminescent mayonnaise made with garlic, saffron, and cayenne that literally translates as "rust." The fish would follow this, used to flavour the stock and served whole on a platter with vegetables from the broth.
Robert places his burger on the table and I dig in, noting the fish flavours and creamy sauce. The burger bun is fougasse, a bread from the Provence region of France made with rich olive oil. With a sprinkle of saffron from a nearby village, it's baked on site before being dipped into fish soup.
"We then cook up leeks, fennel, and onions in the same fish stock too—the traditional vegetables of the bouillabaisse," Robert adds. Potatoes, however, are left out as they're too heavy for his burger creation.Alongside the roasted tomatoes and salad lies the poached fillet of St. Pierre, a traditional bouillabaisse fish cooked in the stock it lends its flavours to."It's very fashionable to cook burgers in France right now," says Robert. "But I started this in 2006, when it was still avant garde."
But what made him rework a classic stew into its current fast food form?"Firstly, I wanted to make the bouillabaisse more affordable," he says. "So both people living in Marseille and our visitors could sample the flavours."Many local restaurants sell traditional bouillabaisse for as much as 60 Euros and a kilo of fish, which is needed per person for the classic, costs chefs around 30 Euros. In comparison, the burger whose juice I'm licking off my fingers comes in at 14 Euros.Robert's approach to the Marseille classic seems to be working. His restaurant's clientele encompasses young, old, locals, and tourists in way that few fellow eateries manage."People love coming here, whether to try new things or to remember their childhoods," says Robert. "It's a taste you might know but in a way that's new and exciting."As Robert changes into clean whites, I can't help wonder what his fellow chefs make of his bouillabaisse creation. In the early 1980s, Marseille chefs set up a "Bouillabaisse Charter," a way of stopping knock-off dishes from being sold as the real deal to unsuspecting tourists.
Luckily for Robert, he learned his craft at signatory restaurant L'Epuisette, where the dish is taken seriously. No fucking around."At first people were sceptical," Robert admits. "People are quite conservative about bouillabaisse in Marseille so some in the food world were against it."
But the burger has won people over."The thing is, I really respect the traditional process and methods, I've just reworked it. It's a bouillabaisse but with a difference," he explains. "I've been true to the dish through and through."