We arrived at a quarter-past four, and were kindly welcomed by the coachman, and then by his master, and then by William, and then by Mrs. Pengird, who all met us before we reached the foot of the stairs. Mde. Bigion was below dressing us a most comfortable dinner of soup, fish, bouillée, partridges, and an apple tart, which we sat down to soon after five, after cleaning and dressing ourselves and feeling that we were most commodiously disposed of. The little adjoining dressing-room to our apartment makes Fanny and myself very well off indeed, and as we have poor Eliza's bed our space is ample every way.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
September 15, 1813
Madame Bigeon, that ever faithful cook kept by Henry Austen was not so much servant as friend. In fact, she was the beneficiary of one of the two bequests left by Jane Austen in her will. Though we may never know the details of the relationship which she shared with Jane, it is clear she was beloved by the author and many of her letters mention visits with the cook during her stays at Henry and Eliza Austen's home. The name Bigeon is of French origin and it is not too far a stretch to imagine Mde Bigeon as a part of Eliza's Paris household, a trusted servant brought over when she returned to England. She may have also been a refugee arriving in England to escape the recent revolution and war in France. Whatever her story, it seems that, on the night of September 14, 1813, she greeted a weary group of travellers with a warming meal of classic French Cuisine.
In her letter to Cassandra, written the next morning, Jane mentions that they were greeted with "soup, fish, bouillée...." Are these not the ingredients of Bouillabaisse, a traditional Provençal fish stew? Originating from the port city of Marseille, the French and English form bouillabaisse comes from the Provençal word bolhabaissa, a compound that consists of the two verbs bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to reduce).
Bouillabaisse is usually a fish stock containing different kinds of cooked fish and shellfish. These are complemented with a variety of herbs and spices such as garlic, orange peel, basil, bay leaf, fennel and saffron. Classically, there are usually a dozen or so kinds of sea food such as monkfish, weever, mullet, mussels, conger eel and bullrout; other kinds of fish may also be used. Vegetables such as leeks, onions, tomatoes and celery are boiled together to produce a rich flavour (the Bouillée) . The exact proportions vary by cook and region.
The stew and the fish are usually served in separate bowls, with the stew poured over slices of French bread seasoned with a spicy sauce of bread crumbs, olive oil, and chilis called rouille, although sometimes an aioli is served. Bouillabaisse is often only served when there are large groups of people, as it is time-consuming to prepare and some of its ingredients may be expensive; it is also generally available from restaurants along the coasts of Provence.
The origins of the dish date back to the time of the Ancient Greeks, when they founded Marseille in 600 BC. Then, the population ate a simple fish stew known in Greek as 'kakavia.' Bouillabaisse also appears in Roman mythology: it is the soup that Venus fed to Vulcan, to lull him to sleep, so that she could cavort with the god Mars.
According to Clifford Wright
, "One of the earliest uses of the word bouillabaisse was in the 1830s as a term expressing the rapidity of the cooking. Stendhal mentioned bouille-à-baisses, perhaps referring to a fish stew, in his travels from 1806. But the famous French chef Raymond Oliver, writing in the Gastronomy of France, makes some extraordinary claims about bouillabaisse. He tells us that it is first mentioned in a dictionary from 1785, that its heritage is Phoenician via Greek Sicily, and that the rules for the making of bouillabaisse were laid down in the sixteenth century. None of this is supported by any evidence but in any case, I agree with his estimation that in 'bouillabaisse'..., it is essential to retain all the delicacy of the fish and never to debase through too much zeal a symphony of tastes which is so hard to achieve."
3 lb Assorted white fish, such as sea bass, flounder, red snapper, grouper, perch, sole, pike, haddock, and cod.
1/3 c Olive oil
5 Garlic cloves, chopped
5 To 10 Saffron threads
1 pinch Thyme
2 lg Onions, coarsely chopped
5 lg Tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or one diced tomatoes
1 Bouquet garni (1 bay leaf, 1 thyme sprig, 6 parsley sprigs pinch each of grated orange peel, ground fennel seeds, basil, and oregano)
2 Carrots, coarsely chopped
2 Leeks, coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground -pepper
6 c Water
1 1/4 c Dry white wine or broth
2 lb Clams or mussels, washed
1 t Saffron threads
2 tsp Pernod
2 Baguettes (French bread) cut diagonally into thin slices
2 lg Garlic cloves, peeled
Fillet the fish or have your fishmonger do it for you. Cut the fish into 1-in (2.5-cm) chunks. Marinate with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 clove chopped garlic, a few saffron threads, and a pinch of thyme for at least 1 hour.
Sauté the onions and remaining chopped garlic in 4 tablespoons olive oil for 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, bouquet garni, orange peel, fennel seeds, basil, oregano, carrots, leeks, salt and pepper, and cook covered for 10 minutes. Add the water and 1 cup of the wine and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat. Blend the mixture in a blender for a few seconds and then strain it into a soup pot through a fine strainer lined with cheesecloth. Discard the residue in the strainer. Taste the stock for seasoning. If it tastes a little thin, reduce over high heat for a few minutes until the flavor is more fully developed.
Add the clams and simmer until they just begin to open. Add the fish and the remaining wine and cook at a rolling boil for 10 minutes. Add the saffron threads and continue to cook for another 5 minutes. Taste and season with Pernod, salt and pepper. Pour into warmed individual bowls.
Meanwhile dry the baguette slices in the oven for a few minutes and then rub them with the whole cloves of garlic. Top the slices of bread with plenty of rouille and float them in the bowls of soup. Serve immediately.
For a more authentic style, ladle the soup into the bowls and serve the fish on a separate plate to be added by each guest.
Historical information from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.
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