When I mention fish soup to my friends they typically turn up their noses. I think the first thing that comes to their minds is some kind of unappetising grey-ish slop, but this one is about as far from that image as you could get! This recipe has its roots in Provence, in the south of France. It's a two-day affair; first you have to diligently clean the fish and rinse them under running water before marinating overnight in olive oil, a selection of herbs and spices, and a mire poix of vegetables. This marinating really makes a difference to the depth of flavour - I recommend you don't omit this step. The spices (saffron and paprika) give the soup an inviting golden colour.
In the restaurant we would order fish soup mix from our fishmonger and they would provide us with a nice range of small fish such as gurnard, mullet, hake or john dory. They were too small to be worth selling on their own as there would be hardly any meat on them, but they were perfect for soup. Luckily I live only a ten minute walk from the harbour, and there is a fishmonger right there on the waterfront. Unfortunately they didn't have any fish-soup-sized fish in stock, so I took one small sea bream and one small sea bass instead.
For extra savoury punch I begin the soup by frying anchovies to create a sticky, salty base. While the fish are roasting in the oven I add the vegetables to the pan and cook them down until soft and sweet. I also add a tin of cooked sardines. The oily fish gives an extra richness. The amazing thing about this soup is everything is pureed, bones included, to create quite a thick, substantial meal. It's perfect served with black olive tapenade on toast. It really is an amazing dish and I promise that you'll see fish soup in a different light after eating this!
Provençal Fish Soup Recipe
- 1 kg small white fish, such as John Dory or bream
- 1 bulb fennel, roughly chopped
- 1 bunch thyme
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
- 1 large pinch saffron
- 1 small tin anchovies, drained but reserve the oil
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 small leek, roughly chopped
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 6 tablespoons black olive tapenade
- 6 slices crusty bread, for toasting
- 1 tin sardines
- 2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
- 2 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped
- 8 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
Using a pair of kitchen scissors, cut off all the fins and sharp bits from the fish and discard them. Remove the innards, gills and eyeballs and discard those also. Wash the fish thoroughly under running cold water, then drain in a colander. If you didn't manage to source any small fish (about the size of your palm or smaller), cut the fish into chunks then place in a deep-sized tray or large bowl. Pick some thyme leaves and reserve them to use as garnish at the end. Add the carrots, tomatoes, fennel, leek, onion, garlic, thyme, paprika, saffron, about 6 tablespoons of olive oil and a generous pinch of sea salt to the fish and mix thoroughly. Cover and leave in the fridge for 12 hours, mixing it occasionally.
Heat the oven to 200C. Carefully separate the vegetables from the fish. Place the fish in a roasting tray and roast in the oven for 30-40 minute, or until golden. Meanwhile, place a large, heavy-based pot or casserole dish over a medium-high heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil. Wait 1 minute for the oil to heat up, then add the anchovies plus about a tablespoon of the oil from the tin. Stir-and-fry until the anchovies have broken down into a nice sticky paste, then add the rest of the vegetables. Add another pinch of salt, then cook over a medium heat for about 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft and sweet and starting to caramelise.
At this point, the fish should be ready. Add the roasted pieces to the pot with the vegetables, and drain the tin of sardines and add that too. Mix well, then cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, skimming and froth that rises to the surface. Once boiling, turn down to a gentle simmer and cook like this for 1.5 hours, topping up with water to keep the ingredients just covered. The bones of the fish should be very soft and almost mushy.
Blend the soup, in batches if need be, and pass through a fine sieve. It's very important to use a fine mesh sieve here as you don't want any of the coarse stuff in the soup.
Get the bread toasted and spread it with the tapenade. To garnish the soup, sprinkle over some paprika and the reserved thyme leaves, and drizzle some olive oil.