Monday, December 3, 2012

A "Whelk-come" Fish Soup

Part of the joy of traveling to foreign countries is sampling foods you don't normally eat every day. This fish soup is one of them. When I'm traveling, I'm likely to choose fish at a restaurant -- anything from waterzooi in Belgium, brodetto in Italy, or crab soup in Maryland. A lot of times I think I'm being virtuous by staying away from a fat-laden steak, but truth be told, I make up for the calories and cholesterol with all the cakes and pastries I can't resist afterwards. I do really love fish though, and am always ready to try something new. When I ordered this fish soup at dinner one night on my recent trip to Provence, it came complete with three shells resting on top - unlike any other I've ever eaten.

  If you're thinking they look similar to snails, that's because they are a kind sea snail. They're called "whelks" and they're found all over the world, even in New Jersey. They're commonly eaten in Europe, and the Japanese like to use them in sushi.  Some varieties are poisonous however, so don't gather them on a beach and try to cook them if you don't know what you're doing. If you want to read more about them, you'll find a wealth of information here.

Actually, they taste a little rubbery and I can't say I'd go out of my way to eat them. But they were part of this delicious fish soup I ate on my recent trip to Provence with Bliss Travels, and I certainly would go out of my way to eat this soup again. It's a lot different from other fish soups I've eaten, partly because of the variety of spices used in the recipe. I bought some of the spices one day at a local market in the village, hoping to recreate the soup at home. 

Wendy Jaeger, owner of Bliss Travels, explained that there are two kinds of fish soup - bouillabaisse and soupe de poisson. The one I ate (in the photos above) was neither, but rather a "nouvelle" interpretation.  Soupe de Poisson is a fish-based broth, cooked with tomato, fennel, leek, saffron, and onion, and is typically strained after being pureed, Wendy said. It's also served with croutons,  aioli (kissin' cousin to mayonnaise but with garlic) or rouille (a spicier version, made with cayenne pepper and sometimes saffron too) and shredded cheese. In the photo below, you can see the small bowls of cheese and rouille alongside my fish soup.

  Bouillabaisse is properly made with fish from the Mediterranean only, Wendy said, one of which is rascasse (scorpion fish). First the broth, similar to the soupe de poisson, is made. Pastis, an anise flavored liqueur, is often added as well. Then whole steamed fish (sometimes boiled slightly in the broth -- but never overcooked) are brought out on a platter, along with potatoes and other accompaniments. You then filet the fish you like and place a bit of each into your bowl of broth. The soup and sauces are replenished until you are finished. 

The rich, red color in the fish soup pictured above comes from a variety of sources - a reduction of the shellfish shells, as well as the addition of saffron, tomato and sometimes red pepper. Not all fish soups have a red color, however, as you can see from the photos of fish soups I ate on other nights during the trip.

This was a bouillabaisse with freshly caught local fish, served with rouille and a slice of toasted baguette smeared with an olive paste.

 Another day I ate a fish stew served with rice and vegetables. It included a bright red crayfish. 

 On my last night there, I chose this small casserole of scallops, shrimp and mussels as my first course -- not really a fish soup in the traditional sense, but it deserves to be included because it was so delicious and beautiful too, with a crispy topping.

 How I'd love to be sitting in one of those restaurants right now, enjoying one of those dishes. But in the absence of a flight to Provence, Wendy's recipe for Soupe de Poisson will have to suffice. If you want to put on your traveling shoes, and you're looking for a great holiday getaway though, check out Wendy's upcoming trip to Paris.

Soupe de Poisson

courtesy of Wendy Jaeger, Bliss Travels

"My Soupe de Poisson recipe is a hybrid, and has been adapted for the U.S. It is also much quicker to make.  (I would never ever use tomato paste in France, but find it's a necessity to use here.) What I have done is make a broth that we eat with just the accompaniments -- or for more full and formal dining, it's a broth that we can add fish to it, to make it into a quasi-bouillabaisse. I do not strain it, just puree it. I prefer the fuller feel with the lighter flavor.  Mine is very light and vegetable oriented and I make a saffron and garlic aioli, because that is my preference and I am not a big lover of pepper." - Wendy

cup olive oil

small garlic cloves, chopped

½ cups of chopped sweet onion

½ cups of chopped leek, white and light green only

cup of chopped fennel

½ - 5 cups tomato (peeled, seeded and chopped)

cups of white wine

cups water  (or fish stock)

Tablespoons of tomato paste, depending upon the flavor of the fresh tomatoes
used above



Tablespoons of fresh thyme, leaves only

¾ teaspoon of fennel seed

2 bay leaves

-2 inch strips of orange peel

to ¾  teaspoon of saffron

and pepper


ounces filet of skinned flaky white fish, such as snapper, sole or halibut

additional fish for poaching (a variety of bass, halibut, scallop, shrimp,
mussels…are all good choices)

a large soup pot, heat oil, then add garlic, stir for a moment, add onion, leek
and fennel. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally for 5-10 minutes until
vegetables soften. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Simmer
mixture for 45 minutes to an hour. Use an immersion blender to thoroughly
blend, after removing bay leaves.

the whitefish and bring soup to a slow boil, check seasoning, adding salt if
necessary. Boil until fish is done, five minutes or so. Break up fish into fine
flakes with a fork, or by pulsing the immersion blender just briefly.

using additional fish, poach the fish at the last minute and add whole.

wide, shallow soup bowls, place poached fish on bottom of bowl, ladle hot soup
over fish, and serve with croutons, aioli (garlic mayonnaise with saffron, white
wine, lemon and salt), and shredded parmesan or comte cheese on the table.

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  1. This soup looks amazing and extremely tasty! I'm not too sure about the whelks, though... ;-P



  2. What a great tutorial on classic French fish cookery. Thanks for the enlightenment and for all the photos. I particularly enjoyed the photo of the spices - so pretty and so evocative of the marketplace. Your photographs are the next best thing to being there. Thanks!

  3. I also like to order fish when I dine out. The casserole of scallops, shrimp and mussels would be a dish I'd choose.
    The Soupe de Poisson also looks delicious! I like escargot, so I'm wondering if welks taste like them?

  4. Thanks for sharing Linda, I love "zuppa di pesce" ! Do you know "cacciucco alla livornese" or "boreto alla graisana"?[1]/14.html

    have a nice day, a hug...

  5. Carissima Linda, are you still in Provence? Like you I adore sea food restaurants. Your post is a beautiful story about great sea food and I'm thinking it is a long time now I do have a lovely sea food meal!
    Un bacione

  6. I would eat anything sitting there in all that beauty... well maybe not the whelks. It looks very beautiful though. I love the color and flavors in the broth!

  7. I adore seafood in all its permutations. I'd eat of all of those dishes in a flash! Frank

  8. This looks great, the soup has very rich flavor. Probably I like to add some vegetables such as carrot, potato or broccoli. :)

  9. This is gorgeous and such a nice change from the cioppino I regularly make. I kind of like the blast of tomato pate. And that fish stew - wow!