The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jul 10, 2011

Stew Away

In John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure, a snobbish voluptuary Tarquin Winot waxes eloquently about all manner of food. His life, he likes to observe, is best represented in vignettes of gastronomy. And so nearly every page of the copy I recently borrowed from the local library has dark streaks - left, I imagine, by the tongues of drooling readers. And why not? Check out this litany of fish stews.
The conditions and prohibitions with which the making of a successful bouillabaise is hedged around make it a problematic dish for the home cook, at any rate for the home cook who lives more than an hour or so's drive from the coastline between Toulon and Marseille. My house in the Vaucluse is an hour and forty minutes from Marseille, assuming good weather which is necessary on the twisting roads of the Lubéron. Other fish soups are less contentious in their composition, a fact which may make them appealing for those who are less beguiled than I am by what Spinoza called 'the deep difficulty of excellence'. In any case, over the years at my homes in Provence and Norfolk (less so in Bayswater) I have cooked burrida, the hearty and accommodating Genoese specialty; cotriade, the warming and economical potato-oriented Breton dish (sometimes seasoned simply through the addition of seawater); the soothing matelote normande, of which more shortly; the exuberant Portuguese fisherman's stew caldeirada, enough to make any one of us into a lusophile, and graced with the additional blessing of reheatability in the form of the excellent fish has ropa velha de peixe; the fiery but somehow light, refreshing, life-affirming fish stews of Thailand, spiked with chilli and lemon grass and the glamorous but refreshing exoticism of that suddenly convenient country (only hours away!); the paradoxical red-wine-using matelotte and raito, the former with its disturbingly phallic and alive-seeming eel, the latter with its elusive but comforting taste of cod; the equally coddy Basque ttoro, its origin betrayed by its telltale unpronounceability (my brother was fond of speculating whether, in Basque versions of the game of Scrabble, values were reversed, so that players only won a single point for using letters such as q and x); the crude Greek kakavia and the egg-and-lemon-enhanced psarosoupa avgolemono; the tasty Provencal soupe de poisson with its punchy rouille and promiscuous willingness to accept whatever is put into it (perhaps the most adaptable and portable of all these national soups); the chowders (from chaudière, stewpot, a word which also refers to the kind of domestic gas boiler whose explosion was to kill my parents) of North America, expressive of that continent in their hearty emphatic blandness; the delicate Bergensk fiskesuppe, which the unfortunate Mitthaug used to prepare with great displays of energy in his attempts to get the freshest possible, indeed the freshest imaginable, cod and coley, rising before dawn to go to Billingsgate and returning with fish, which, as my father observed, a competent veterinarian ought to have been able to resuscitate; indeed, our own grey little country is almost the only one which fails to have its own indigenous version of fish soup, even the Scots having their surprisingly edible Cullen Skink.


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