The fragrance of lavender wafting on a warm summer wind, a faded tablecloth of tiny blue and yellow flowers, a crusty chunk of French bread crowned with an earthy smear of olive tapenade, a bowl so full of seafood, it practically swims away. Even years later, I remember my sojourn in France’s luminous Provençal region as a sensory feast.
I recently got a sudden pang for a bowl of bouillabaisse and knew exactly where to satisfy my craving for the saffron scented seafood soup. Berkeley’s La Note — perhaps better known for the long line of weekend brunchers waiting for plates of pancakes and omelettes — is a cozy, kitschy cafe dressed in traditional warm French blue, olive-green and mustard yellow. On Friday night, the restaurant was filled with the hum of animated conversations at candlelit tables, plus live accordion music from a jaunty fellow on a stool by the door. Luckily, I had made reservations (which are not offered for weekend brunch).
I have always been a seafood fanatic. I dream of paella, cioppino, oysters, clams, mussels. I got hooked on an early trip to France by a gigantic platter heaped with all manner of shelled creatures from the sea.
La Note’s bouillabaisse contains generous helpings of shrimp, clams, mussels, sea bass and crab in a (very hot) bowl of saffron infused broth and vegetables, with the traditional accompaniment of toasted croutons spread with rouille (a peach colored saffron aioli) to float in the soup.
The dish originated in Marseille, thanks to the plentiful fish available around this port city. Its characteristic flavor comes from a unique blend of herbs and spices such as orange peel, saffron, basil, fennel and bay leaves and a great variety of specific local fish, such as racasse (scorpionfish) with the addition of white wine and anise liquor. Local folklore dictates that the more people who will share the soup, the more different kinds of fish need to be added. Vegetables cooked in the broth typically include tomatoes, celery, leeks and onions. In Marseille, the dish is traditionally served in two acts: first a bowl of broth with rouille topped bread and then a separate plate or bowl with the vegetables and seafood.
While both Greece and Italy claim to be the originators of this distinctive dish, according to eminent food historian Clifford A. Wright, there are boiled fish stews wherever there are fishermen. Even in France there is disagreement regarding its ancestry. An eighteenth century French dictionary links the dish to “a fisherman’s term, a sort of ragout consisting of boiling some fish in seawater.” (Bouillir means to boil, an essential step in the soup’s preparation). Wright admits this may be accurate, but clarifies “this is a far cry from the bouillabaisse we know of today with its saffron, fennel, orange zest, and Pernod and expensive fish such as rascasse)… it was actually invention of a nineteenth-century restaurateur of Marseilles.”
La Note’s bouillabaisse is not too complicated and emphasizes the showy shellfish I love. The crab legs seductively dangling over the side of the bowl required a little hands-on effort to extract the succulent crabmeat, but were well worth the exertion. And when I closed my eyes, I could almost sniff a whiff of lavender on the wind. (recipes follow)