There’s a question that fish soup lovers who visit the South of France want to know: What’s the difference between Marseilles’ Bouillabaisse and Sete’s fish soup?
Leave it to Nancy McGee of Absolutely Southern France to have the answer. She’s an expert on foodie things in both Sete and Marseilles, where she offers walking gourmet tours. Recipes from Cook’n with Class make it easy for us to prepare their version of Sete’s fish soup and Marseilles’ Bouillabaisse at home!
A TALE OF TWO CITIES – by Nancy McGee
Bustling, edgy Marseille, France’s second and oldest city and largest commercial port, is becoming increasingly trendy. Sete, its younger, understated cousin and the most important fishing port on the Mediterranean is ‘the most fascinating small town on the French Mediterranean coast,’ according to the UK’s Daily Telegraph. Despite their differences, they have much in common: a strong shared maritime tradition, fascinating history – and a passion for food. So, how does a visitor to the South of France choose between the two? Easy – visit both; they’re only a two-hour drive apart.
Meanwhile, a visitor’s first question in the South of France is invariably food-related, often about authentic regional dishes. So, let’s look at two typically Mediterranean specialties: fish soup from Sète and Bouillabaisse from Marseille. What is the difference between the two?
Fish soup from Sete is made from various small rockfish caught in the fishermen’s nets as they feed off the rocks near the Mediterranean shore. Rather than toss them back into the sea, the fishermen take them home and cook them in a unique blend of herbs and spices. The bones are removed, and the broth is put through a sieve. The soup is served with thinly sliced croutons spread with rouille (mayonnaise with olive oil, garlic, saffron, and cayenne pepper.) This fish soup is done as a starter in restaurants, costing around 8 euros.
The best rockfish soup has been produced in Sete since 1963 by the same family, Azais Polito. Their fish soup is featured in gourmet shops such as Harrods and Lafayette Gourmet and is exported worldwide… If you get a craving, simply order online.
Bouillabaisse from Marseille is basically fish soup but served with a side dish of fillets of least three types of fish – mullet, turbot, monkfish. The fish fillets are cooked in the soup and along with potatoes. Like the fish soup, it is served with a rouille and croutons. The Bouillabaisse is a main course costing at least 35 euros per person to as much as 100 euros for versions including more delicate fish and seafood species.
My favorite spot for a Bouillabaisse in Marseille is at Chez FonFon. Not only is the soup tasty, but you are offered constant refills. The restaurant is niched in an alcove barely noticed by passersby and overlooks the inlet crammed with small fishing boats.
Isn’t a meal without wine like a day without sunshine – especially in France? There’s no shortage of good regional wine to complement a fish soup. Choose a Bandol rosé from Provence or a refreshing Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc to play it safe.
Is anything else not to be missed? Quite a lot, but I’d need to write an encyclopedia! From Marseille: navettes, light biscuits delicately flavoured with eau de fleur d’oranger. And let’s not forget pastis, France’s favorite aperitif.
From Sète: the Tielle, a deliciously piquant octopus pie with a strong Italian heritage, zezettes, a light biscuit delicately flavored with local Muscat wine.
Thanks to Cook’n with Class Uzès for the photos of fish soups from Marseilles and Sete.
Here’s where to find year-round activities in Sete.