Fish Soup has as many variations as fish in the sea; bouillabaisse, usually being the first which springs to mind, although a typical fish soup found in Brittany and the South of France is blended fish with rich tomatoes, onions, fennel, celery, red pepper and a dollop of firey red rouille balanced on a little croute is a close second and my personal favourite. The blended version is least intimidating to the many folk who find all the bits of unknown things floating too challenging. The Scots have the wonderfully comforting Cullen Skink, a milky soup of smoked haddock, with onion, celery and parsley.
I had been at Billingsgate at the crack of dawn one day this week. Sadly, I do not find it such an inspiring place when it come to the simple task of buying fresh fish and knowing exactly where it has come from. Provenance is definitely not promoted by any of the traders I saw. As for fish crisis, 'what eel shortage?'. If you are motivated to buy fish responsibly, you are on safer ground buying from your local farmers market or to track down a box scheme from a day boat who will courier fresh fish overnight to you. There is always a minimum order, if you can organise your order with neighbours or work colleagues, well worth doing for optimum quality. Or even at the supermarket where you see MSC logo (Marine Stewardship Council), which is an accreditation scheme of sustainability and full traceability.
On a more positive note there is a fish school attached to the market and I can testify to the excellent teachers and tutors, who share their considerable knowledge with gusto. There is so much to learn when it comes to fish anatomy, seasons, how best to prepare it. I have been twice and now a few of the things I learned the first time are just starting to sink in.
I came away with a bag of mixed fish and made a fish soup, loosely based on the bouillabaisse idea. That is, different fish cooked in a flavourful broth. I had a glut of beautifully ripe tomatoes, perhaps it could have passed for a fish stew, along the lines of the Genoese classic, Burrida. Ultimately any fish soup or stew is about what you have and what needs using up.
Here's what I had
- 1 kilo mixed fish (Octopus, bream, gurnard) all chopped up either on the bone or you can fillet if you want an easy life eating it.
- 1 big onion finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 1 red chili deseeded and finely chopped
- Thyme, bayleaf and fennel fronds,
- Roasted red pepper stripped and chopped
- 8 tomatoes roughly chopped
- About 500ml fish stock (I used shellfish stock)
- Good pinch of saffron
- Glug of Pastis
- Plenty of seasoning
- 50ml of olive oil
- a piece of orange peel (or star anise)
- Infuse the saffron in a few tablespoons of warm fish stock for as long as possible and set aside. Heat the oil in a pan and then add the onion, bayleaf, thyme and fennel fronds, and fry for about 7-8 minutes. Then add the garlic for one minute further. Splash in the pastis and allow to bubble away completely.
- Add the tomatoes, chopped chili and roasted red pepper and cook on a low simmer for about 10-12 minutes, until it looks soft and cooked down.
- Add the saffron infused fish stock and bring to a simmer, at this point add the octopus and piece of orange peel(or star anise) and simmer gently for at least 40-50 minutes on low.
- Then add the delicate fish fillets and gently simmer for about 10 minutes maximum.
- Take off the heat, remove the orange peel and bayleaves, add some fresh herbs (I didn't have any but for the luscious fennel growing in my garden).
Aah, you can taste the South of France, or Brittany, Cornwall, West coast of Wales, Ireland or Portugal for that matter. Remember this is but a suggestion and you can add many other things. If I had had celery in stock, that would have been a worthy addition, but no worries if not and suggest this is a good approach to have, rather than being hung up on having all you think you need.