The finest bouillabaisse I ever tasted was not in Marseille, but at one of the Feinschmeckerbars on the sixth floor of the Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe) on Wittenbergplatz, Berlin. I was never a fan of fishy soups until I tasted this soupe d’or. A marmite of bouillabaisse (€8,50) and a glass of Sancerre is now ritual. I’m hooked on it. But then KaDeWe is no ordinary shop.
Founded a hundred years ago by Jewish businessman Adolf Jandorf, today this über-emporium outshines its rivals; London’s Harrods and New York’s Macy’s are bargain outlets by comparison. Whereas department stores were on the decline elsewhere, the KaDeWe situated on the edge of East Berlin drew inspiration as a brazen advert for capitalism and the joys of obsessive, conspicuous consumption.
Even jaded gourmets are left gaping at its food stalls, run under licenses from some of the greatest chefs in Europe such as Paul Bocuse and Gaston Lenotre (who passed away earlier this year). Among its 35 000 comestibles, you will find 300 varieties of pralines, 400 breads, 1300 cheeses, 1500 styles of sausage and 3400 wines from five continents. The greengrocer counters are supplied with premium produce flown in directly: beans from Senegal, Japanese Nashi pears, juicy pitahaya cactus fruit from Mexico, Moroccan chanterelles; ugli, durian and kaki fruits from Malaysia; whole sugar cane and outsized cassava. Exotic fish arrive from seas as far away as Hawaii and the Seychelles, which brings me back to the bouillabaisse.
Bouillabaisse originated with the fishermen of Marseille boiling up the small rockfish and other pathetic creatures caught in their nets that restaurants didn’t want. Self-appointed purists insist that to be authentic the brew has to include scorpion fish and conger eel. William Thackeray wrote in his Ballad of the Bouillabaisse: a ‘hotpotch of all sorts of fishes’ and he mentions roach, dace, sole and mussels.
Today bouillabaisse is a gourmet dish. Recipes abound, but there is some consensus. The name derives from the verbs ‘bouillir’ (to boil) and ‘abaisser’ (to lower). A bouillabaisse is therefore a reduction. The base is typically Provençal – fennel, thyme, bay, garlic, onions and olive oil. Fish and shellfish are added according to their cooking time. Its unique flavouring is derived from saffron and orange zest; its colour is golden. It is traditionally accompanied with rouille, a mayonnaise emulsion with red chillies and saffron.
Having missed Berlin this winter, for the first time in five years, I was craving a bouillabaisse fix. So Munchkin, who is a Provençal nut, set off with me to test our local variations.
Let’s start with the most disappointing, ironically in a pretentious, brand new deli named Bouillabaisse where you’d expect them to get it right. The minute we saw the chef wielding a liquidiser we knew we were in trouble. What arrives is a thin, muddy coloured bouillon. Munchkin pronounced it insipid and whispered, “If only I had a stock cube in my pocket I’d add it!” The menu does state it’s chef Camil’s version, but bouillabaisse creates certain international expectations. It is not ‘filled’ as the menu states, but contains two small prawns, a single thumbnail sized piece of salmon and one of white fish (which was missing from my portion). It is accompanied by a niggardly corner of toast with a smidgen of rouille. For R95 I expected a meal. A cup of tea would have been more filling.
The frightfully zhoozsh seafood restaurant Baia serves two versions which are really a tomato based Portuguese caldeirada. Accompanied by a separate plate of rice, the line fish version (R150) is darker and the broth richer. The shellfish ‘bouillabaisse’ ( R277!) is an enormous seafood platter including several dinner-sized portions of line fish dumped in a bowl filled with fairly good soup. Munchkin had to help me finish.
Faraway the best bouillabaisse in town is that of chef Thomas Sinn, served at his eponymous restaurant which has just opened a deli. Sinn’s Cape consommé version (R105) beats the others for authenticity, quality and value. It is golden. It is topped with the correct green herb sauce and rouille. The generous helping of prawns, mussels, tentacles of octopus, line fish, salmon and calamari are all perfectly cooked and their flavours preserved. Sometimes the chef is a bit shy with the precious liquid, so I now make a point when ordering of asking for extra. I recommend you do as I have seen the French fishermen do and break the richly buttered toast that accompanies it into the bowl. Here, it’s as good as Berlin.
Baia, V&A Waterfront. Tel: 021 421 0935.
Bouillabaisse, The Rockwell, Napier Street, Green Point. Tel: 021 418 0440.
Sinn’s Restaurant, Wembley Square, Gardens, Cape Town. Open daily from 9am until midnight. Tel: 021 465 0967.