French Cooking: A Fish Story

Vous avez un choix, madame. You can choose between the barbue for five people or the turbot. The lithe, blonde poissonnière floats between two whole fishes nestled on crushed ice in her display case, pointing them out Carol Merrill-style.

The presentation is breathtaking, as is the fresh-from-the-sea smell that pervades the narrow poissonnerie on Antibes’ Place Nationale. No cling film. No lofty, American-style sneeze guard. Just fish. Me, the slender poissonnière, and a boatload of goggle-eyed fish.

And Chris, my affable, doctor cousin from California. My husband’s side of the family left on Sunday and mine arrived on Monday. ‘Tis the season in the sunny Côte d’Azur. We’re thrilled by our popularity and know through experience that a culinary shopping spree through Antibes’ daily Marché Provençal and other specialist food vendors can be a highlight for visitors. It offers a glimpse into real French life.

I’ve narrowed my final answer to the two flat, rounded bottom feeders that the poissonnière identifies. Ils sont dans la même famille, she says helpfully. They’re in the same family.

Sort of like my cousin and me, I guess.

It’s a tough choice at the poissonnerie in Antibes’ Place Nationale.  Photo:  Charlene Huang
It’s a tough choice at the poissonnerie in Antibes’ Place Nationale. Photos: Charlene Huang

I finally settle on the barbue. The variety is new to me – not that I’m an expert. Just as men take the reins at a barbeque, preparing the fish is Phillip’s forte.

Est-ce que je peux l’ecailler et le nettoyer? the poissonnière asks, continuing her question with a scooping motion and the word vider. To empty.

That’s a most certain oui. Besides the convenience, I’m keen to show off the carving skills of the shop’s poissonnier (who’s presumably married to the poissonnière because that’s how things work around here). More than one local friend has described this poissonnier as un vrai artisan. A true craftsman. I figure my doctor cousin will appreciate his anatomical precision.

The poissonnier sets to, first descaling the barbue before slicing perfect upper and lower hunks of pale flesh from its central spine. He leaves a line of skin in tact so that, replacing the flesh over the fish’s core, the barbue appears whole again. He flips the fish over and repeats. Cousin Chris is suitably impressed.

Meanwhile I realize I’ve forgotten to ask Philippe what else to purchase at the market for the fish, so I ask the poissonnière about its preparation.

We’re going to cook the fish dans le four tonight, I tell her while doing charades of a tray going into an oven. (I always worry my kitchen lingo is twisted.) But I’ve forgotten. Do we put lemon in the cavity alongside the herbs?

Non, non, the poissonnière says, wagging her finger. It’s better after. Just bake the barbue with herbs and squeeze on the lemon afterward.

The answer is simple – but the lesson hardly stops there. Food is paramount in France. The artistry of its preparation must flow from the farm (and fishing vessel) all the way to the fork. And we all love it about the place.

Serve the barbue with ravioles aux artichauts, the graceful poissonnière says. You can buy fresh, artichoke-stuffed ravioli from the marchande up the road on the right. She waves outside the shop along Rue Sade, a pedestrian lane laid in a mosaic of dark bricks.

Pasta – of any variety – is hardly on my written shopping list. For the past 10 days my 10-year-old Lolo has all but survived on pasta alongside her finicky younger cousin. But tonight, ravioles aux artichauts it will be.

Et des poireaux, the poissonnière says. You must serve leeks.

I add des poireaux to my growing mental shopping list. As the poissonnier finishes his surgery, I settle up with the poissonnière and arrange to collect the cleaned barbue at the end of our shopping.

The marchande up Rue Sade malheureusement doesn’t have any ravioles aux artichauts today.

Zut. Buying time to think in the busy corridor of her pasta shop, I mention the poissonnière down the road and our barbue.

The efficient marchande offers me fewer choices than the poissonnière. She simply supplies a solution.

The demi lune ricotte should do the trick.
The demi lune ricotte should do the trick.

You prepare ravioles de ricotte – she points to a tray in her glass display of flour-dusted half-moons filled with ricotta cheese – and you serve them with une sauce aux artichauts using this jar. She lifts a glass jar from the top of her display case and replaces it with a clack. Cook this in une poêle (a sauce pan) with some crème fraiche.

I lift the glass jar more gingerly. It contains something pale and minced. Carciofella, the label reads, salsa di cuori di carciofo. It’s the wrong language, but the artichoke sketch gives it away.

I consider this solution. It’s not really what I had in mind, but hearing few alternatives, I decide to give it a go. A side of ravioles de ricotte for eight, s’il vous plaît, and a jar of the carciofella.

The purposeful marchande weighs the half-moons as she slides them into a plastic bag. Only eight minutes, she warns. No more. As for the sauce, do you have crème fraiche?

The question is more pointed than I would’ve liked. Truth is, no, I don’t, and it’s not on my shopping list. But we do have plain yogurt at home, and I frequently use it as a healthy substitute for mayonnaise, crème fraiche and their luxurious cousins. But – call me crazy – I’m somehow reluctant to admit this culinary trick to the French marchande.

Still, her question leaves little room to maneuver without fabrication. I choose the truth.

Non, I don’t have crème fraiche at home, but that’s okay. I like to use plain yogurt.

Du yaourt?! You can’t heat du yaourt! She looks positively wounded. Le yaourt must be eaten cold!

Yes, but I already mix yogurt into a pesto sauce that I make sometimes. . . . My voice is thin, diminishing.

The marchande bustles behind her counter to collect a jar of the carciofella, muttering something to her colleague and shaking her head. I hear the last phrase: On apprend quelque chose de nouveau tous les jours. You learn something new every day.

When she returns to ring up my purchases, I find myself detailing a tuna salad recipe. Instead of la mayonnaise, I tell her, I use du yaourt – and I add little morceaux of céleri, and sometimes des câpres, and definitely a good spoonful of moutarde à la ancienne. As this concoction involves yogurt and more than one other jarred ingredient, I guess I’m trying to regain lost ground?

The marchande pauses momentarily to coo appreciatively. On apprend quelque chose de nouveau tous les jours, she says, this time for my consumption. She might actually mean it this time.

At the end of Rue Sade, we finally reach the highlight of our culinary wander through old Antibes: le Marché Provençal.

Generations on, the Marché Provençal continues to flourish.
Generations on, the Marché Provençal continues to flourish.

The market dates back at least a century in this place, formerly running in the open air beneath thick foliage along the then-Rue du Port. Depending on the season and the era, farmers sold produce that has included fresh beans and carrots, parsley, red fruits and apples and plums, hundreds of different cheeses, olives and blubs of garlic and slices of dried tomatoes. They’ve sold sausages made from dried pork and boar and donkey meats, baskets of figs, bunches of turnips and radishes and lavender, and scores pulverized, dried spices in a rainbow of little, wooden boxes. In the late 1920s, Antibes’ energetic and development-happy mayor commissioned a metal frame and covering for the city’s Marché Provençal – much to the displeasure of many locals at that time. And thus, wars and generations later, le Marché Provençal remains to this day.

There are several items on my famous shopping list, but first things first. I’m unsure which herbs Philippe wants for the fish – but I am certain to find lots of good advice in the market. Noon approaches and the temperature mounts, especially amid the narrow rows running between the stalls, when I approach a weary marchande. Her tables are stacked with an array of vegetables and leafy greens.

Bonjour! (You always start with a hearty bonjour, no matter how pressed or tired you are.) Do you have any herbes today – the type I’d use in baking a poisson?

The marchande lifts herself from a stool and rifles through neat, plastic packages of herbes – basil, rosemary and a few others.

Non, pas aujourd’hui, she says. Not today. She points at a fruit stand further along the covered market’s internal pathway. Try the young man there in the blue shirt.

I thank her by buying a bunch of beautiful leeks. After all, poireaux are on my (mental) list. The marchande’s entire face smiles at my selection. Along with her shared wisdom, I must’ve scored twice.

The young man in blue has des herbes. He flicks through a tidy stack of green leaves in bags. He stops on parsley.

Est-ce que vous voulez du persil?

Non, pas ça, I say. We’re playing a guessing game. I can visualise the delicate, leafy herb I want for the fish. I think I’d even recognize its name.

La corriandre?

Non. Anything but fresh coriander in my book.

Je n’ai pas du cerfeuil aujourd’hui.

Chervil. That’s it. The man in blue knows what I want – but not today. So he recommends de l’aneth. It will work perfectly with fish, he declares.

I recognize the herb by its shape. Dill. Okay, oui, that will do.

The rest of my shopping list proves even less straightforward. Not a head of fresh brocoli inhabits the Marché Provençal today – bar one table offering bunches half-covered in tawny clusters, but then I’d hardly call that fresh. A query about la rhubarbe brings an earnest promise for tomorrow. Des radis, more slender and mild than North American radishes, exist only là-bas, another vendor explains while waving me back toward the young man in the blue shirt. I refuse to weave my way back through the sweaty thicket.

What’s dinner without a fromage or two?
What’s dinner without a fromage or two?

Crossing back through the old town, our bags sag more deeply after stops at the fromagerie (for a cheese course), the boulangerie (baguettes for the cheese), the olive shop, the boucherie (sausages for the real carnivores in our family) and one or two souvenir shops. Nothing is ever simple. At last we pop back chez la poissonnière to collect our barbue.

I have des poireaux! I announce to the slender, blonde vendor. And I tried to buy your ravioles aux artichauts, but I ended up with ricotte and a sauce aux artichauts.

I’m an American schoolgirl again, hoping to impress my latest French instructor.

Bon! The poissonnière says with a nod. Apparently I’ve earned top marks. Suddenly her brow creases. Do you know how long to cook the ravioles?

Eight minutes! I cry. Relief flutters across the poissonnière’s face. Disaster averted.

We’re hot and exhausted by the time we reach Bellevue, but my dear cousin is delighted by the adventure. You’d hardly get that sort of service from Amazon, he says.

The meal would be incomplete without a fresh baguette.
The meal would be incomplete without a fresh baguette.

He has a point. What’s more, tonight the fish turns out perfectly, falling from its bones in succulent, dill-infused sections. The leeks, sliced longitudinally and steamed with a sprinkling of dried herbes de Provence, are frankly divine. The tender pillows of fresh ricotta are true mouthfuls of heaven. And I even boiled an enormous globe artichoke to share with our guests, each pulpy leaf complimenting tonight’s menu.

It’s just the sauce aux artichauts. I heated the contents of the carciofella jar in a pan with plain yogurt. Non-fat, plain yaourt, I should mention, but I couldn’t possibly have admitted the full story to any proper, crème-discipled French cook.

Simmered in this way and ladled over the eight-minute ravioles de ricotte, the artichoke sauce tasted splendid to my unknowing, Canadian-American palate – even if it curdled in the cooking process.

Someday I’ll tell the efficient marchande at the pasta shop that my healthy adaptation was delicious. But I’ll hardly share a photo.

18 thoughts on “French Cooking: A Fish Story

  1. You make everything sound so interesting…… even cooking a meal! Somehow, I knew you would stick with your healthy version!

  2. Maybe your tuna salad recipe will become a new recommendation for the marchande! All sounds delicious to us!

    1. There’s always one, n’est-ce pas? Thanks, Ian. For the keeners, take a look at the featured photo with Photoshop or the like. . . .

  3. Rachael stole my line! Loved reading the story. Bi must say, it’s probably Julia Child is not still alive. As I read your story, I felt a rumble from the earth (Julia rolling over in her grave) as she hears about your “fat free yogurt” added to your sauce.! Keep the stories coming!

    1. Come on over with Rachael then! Fat-free will become a trend here in another five years. First, though, the French need to perfect it. You heard it here first….

  4. Well, I’m definitely hungry now!!! We’re in the Pacific NW for the summer, and a friend brought over a fresh salmon he’d just caught in the Columbia. Not nearly as adventuresome as your fish experience, but still, delicious!

    1. The lineup – that’s so true! You have a beautiful eye, Patricia. Thanks for reading this post when I know you’re busy with your own. j

  5. OMG this is all mouthwatering! We’ve had trail mix and hard tack for the last couple of weeks – your topic this week was music to my sadly neglected taste buds!! ox

  6. J’ai les papilles gustatives qui salivent en lisant ton blog!
    En passant, la crème fraîche goûte différemment que le yaourt mais moi aussi je l’utilise dans certain plats cuisinés.

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