I love jarred soupe de poissons, but it’s hard to find in the UK. I’d like an easy recipe, because all the ones I’ve tried are very complicated.
Peter, Chippenham, Wiltshire
Ah, fish soup … along with onions on strings, La Marseillaise and gilets jaunes, there’s little that’s more evocative of la belle France. The thing is, though, many of those alluringly branded supermarché jars aren’t true soupes de poissons at all, but mass-produced imposters. As Henry Harris, one of the UK’s most respected purveyors of Gallic cuisine, explains: “The real deal should be a murky broth of immense flavour, not claggy and rusty-red.” In other words, the dense texture of some jarred soups isn’t a sign of superior contents; it’s culinary subterfuge. “They’re thickened with cornflour,” Harris says, “which makes a gloop you can stand a spoon up in.”
As with all fish cookery, the principal raw ingredient is all-important. “You need spanking-fresh fish, or it’s really not worth bothering with,” argues Harris, who heads the kitchens of the Harcourt Inns group of restaurant-pubs in London, with French-leaning menus inspired by his 35-odd years at the stove.
But what fish exactly? Claude Bosi, chef/patron of two-Michelin-starred Bibendum in London, insists it has to be rockfish; being irreparably French, he adds that “it must come from the Med”. Sadly, we don’t get much rascasse and sea perch on UK fish counters, so go for red gurnard and, if your pocket can stretch to it, red mullet, and bulk up the fishy quota with cheaper bream. Mind you, Harris says, gurnard alone works just fine: “The key is whole, cleaned fish, not fillets. The bones are what give the soup body and flavour.”
It’s not at all complicated to make, either, Bosi adds: “You don’t need lots of ingredients, but it is time-consuming.” His top tip? Don’t cut corners or you won’t get the depth you’re after. Harris agrees: “The idea’s the same as with stock – the aim is to extract as much flavour as possible.”
The other ingredients are simply regular soup veg – for each 1kg fish, you need an onion, a carrot, two celery sticks, four garlic cloves, a fennel bulb for that trademark aniseedy back note, all chopped – plus thyme, bay, tomato puree and a nip of saffron. Fry the fish in olive oil, and I mean really fry it, because if you don’t get some colour on it now, your soup will end up paler than Macauley Culkin after a two-day bender. Bosi takes it even further: “Fry it until it starts to break down.”
Bosi now adds the raw soup veg, while Harris browns it separately first. Fry some more, then stir in tomato puree before adding any liquid. Bosi opts for a litre of fish stock, but Harris turns the dial right up by adding a third of a bottle of red wine and reducing by half, repeats that with a can of tomatoes, and only then adds stock, his preference being for chicken. Season generously – “now’s not the time to be shy,” Bosi orders – then cook gently for up to an hour and a half.
Bosi and Harris are adamant that the soup must now be passed first through a food mill, then through a sieve and, ideally, again through muslin – see what they mean by time-consuming? – and never, ever blend it, both chefs warn, because that blitzes the fish skeletons into tiny bone fragments, which give the soup “a deeply unpleasant, gritty texture”, Harris explains. “Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise, professional or not. That includes John Wayne – yes, that John Wayne – who fancied himself so much in the kitchen that he wrote a couple of cookbooks.” Where soupe de poissons is concerned, at least, blending is cowboy behaviour of the very worst kind.
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