A Tale of Two Cities – and the best Fish soup

Bustling, edgy Marseille, France’s second and oldest city, and largest commercial port. Designated as Top Ten Oceanfront Cities by National Geographic in 2014 and one the New York Times’ favourite destinations, Marseille is becoming increasingly trendy. Sète, its younger, understated cousin and the most important fishing port on the Mediterranean, is ‘the most fascinating small town on the French Mediterranean coast’, according to the UK’s Daily Telegraph. Despite their differences they have much in common: a strong shared maritime tradition, fascinating history – and a passion for food.

So how does a visitor to the South of France choose between the two? Easy – visit both, they’re only a two-hour drive apart. While in the South of France, a visitor’s first question is invariably food-related, often about authentic regional dishes. So let’s look at two typically Mediterranean specialties: fish soup from Sète and bouillabaisse from Marseille. What is the difference between the two? It’s simple.

Fish soup from Sète is made from a variety of small rockfish that become caught in the fishermen’s nets as they feed off the rocks near the Mediterranean shore. Rather than toss them back into the sea the fishermen take them home and cook them in a special blend of herbs and spices. The bones are then removed and the broth is put through a sieve. The soup is served with thinly sliced croutons spread with rouille  (a type of mayonnaise with olive oil, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper.)  In restaurants, this fish soup is served as a starter and cost is around 8 euros for the dish.

The best rockfish soup has been produced in Sete since 1963  by the same family, Azais Polito. Their fish soup is featured in gourmet shops such as Harrods and Lafayette Gourmet and is exported worldwide… If you get a craving, simply order online.

Bouillabaisse from Marseille is basically fish soup but served with a side dish of  fillets of  least three types of fish – mullet, turbot, monkfish. The fish fillets are cooked in the soup and along with potatoes. Like the fish soup, it is served with a rouille and croutons. The Bouillabaisse is a main course costing at least 35 euros per person to as much as 100 euros for versions including more delicate species of fish and seafood.

My favorite spot for a Bouillabaisse in Marseille is at Chez FonFon. Not only is the soup tasty but you are offered constant refills.  The restaurant is  niched in an alcove barely noticed by passers by and is overlooking the inlet crammed with small fishing boats.

Picpoul de Pinet

Isn’t a meal without wine like a day without sunshine – especially in France? Definitely and there’s no shortage of good regional wine to complement a fish soup. To play it safe, choose a Bandol rosé from Provence or a refreshing Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc.

Anything else not to be missed? Quite a lot, but I’d need to write an encyclopedia! From Marseille: navettes, light biscuits delicately flavored with eau de fleur d’oranger. And let’s not forget pastis, France’s  favorite aperitif.

From Sète: the Tielle, a deliciously piquant octopus pie with a strong Italian heritage, also zezettes, a light biscuit delicately flavored with local muscat wine.

Thanks to Cook’n with Class Uzes, here are their recipes for the famous fish soups from Marseilles and Sete.


A Modern Bouillabaisse: From Chef Eric

Serves 6, preparation time 45 mins, Cook time 45 minutes

Chef Eric’s Bouillabaisse Recipe

Bouillabaisse of Marseille: Chef Eric’s Southern Fish Soup

Serves 8, preparation time 30 minutes, cook time 90 minutes

This article is also published on the Barefoot Blogger, where Nancy is a regular contributor.