I was waiting to try my first bouillabaisse as a girl waits for her first kiss. It had to be the right one. I’d been told that Marseille was the home of the true bouillabaisse and had never wanted to order my first one in any other place, hoping that some day I would be in that bustling Mediterranean port. But I feared that unless I went with someone who knew the restaurants, I’d wander aimlessly from place to place, never knowing what a true or perfect bouillabaisse really was, and never knowing, even if I were to eat something great, if there weren’t something more authentic or delicious at the restaurant around the corner. M.F.K. Fisher had written mouthwatering accounts of reveling in bouillabaisse in cheap cafes in Marseille, and I was waiting for my own chance.
Then it happened, as unexpectedly as love at first sight; not in the city where I thought it should happen, but at Domaine Tempier, the famous Bandol vineyard about 35 kilometers (21 miles) down the coast to the east. I was summering in the countryside near Bonnieux, a beautiful hill town in the Luberon, north of Aix-en-Provence. My landlady, Nathalie Waag, was a friend of Lulu Peyraud, the proprietress of Domaine Tempier and a Marseillaise. After Nathalie told Lulu that she had rented her house to a vegetarian cookbook author, Lulu invited us both to lunch. Nathalie sent me a note: Lulu Peyraud, the best cook I know, would like you to come to lunch on Friday.
I had no idea that I was headed for paradise when I began my spectacular two-hour drive through the Luberon that Friday morning. All I knew was that my destination was Domaine Tempier (I did not even know that it was a vineyard, let alone a famous one), and that lunch was to be at noon and would be a vegetarian meal but with fish. When I arrived and saw the long table set for 12 under the arbor in front of the house, I could see that this would not be an ordinary meal. The house was a large classic French country house, stucco, with long, turquoise-shuttered windows and doors. Along one side ran an informal garden shaded by arbors, and there were vineyards in all directions. Mountains were in the distance, and just beyond them lay the shimmering Mediterranean.
There was nobody else about, but soon Jean-Marie and François, the Peyrauds’ charming sons, arrived and took me to the cave for a tour and a tasting. Jean-Marie chilled a dusty bottle of 1963 rosé for me to taste and pulled a number of vintages for our lunch. Then Lulu and her bright-eyed husband, Lucien, the man behind the winery, arrived with Nathalie and the other guests, who included the food writer Richard Olney, who lived in a nearby village; and the Berkeley-based wine merchant Kermit Lynch. Suddenly the party was on, and I learned that the meal was going to center on bouillabaisse.
I was thrilled as I watched Lucien and his sons preparing a fire outside. While Lulu, a tiny, passionate woman with blue eyes that always sparkle and an infectious laugh, served luscious tapenade and anchoïade on croutons, tomatoes stuffed with a basil and almond pesto, and cucumber salad in lettuce leaves, her sons poured fruity, dry Domaine Tempier rosé. Then Lucien carried out a huge copper cauldron filled with the fish bouillon that Lulu had made with local rockfish that is too small for eating but perfect for soupe de poissons and whole vegetables — carrots, potatoes, leeks. He set the cauldron over the flames and stirred it with a very long wooden spoon. The broth smelled heavenly, and there was so much of it! As it came to a boil, Lulu appeared with a handful of saffron and sprinkled it in. The ritual had begun.
Lucien, Jean-Marie and François then carried out large, hollowed-out cork trays filled with seafood — whole fish, cut-up eels, mussels and various shellfish — and into the boiling cauldron they all went. It was an unbelievable sight for me, the large pot boiling in the sun over a wood fire, Lucien stirring and watching it. The one thing about which all bouillabaisse aficionados are in agreement is that the broth should be brought to a violent boil and that the fish should be cooked quickly. And so, not more than a quarter of an hour after Lucien had dumped those Mediterranean treasures into the broth, he removed them, placed them back on the trays and urged us to fill our bowls.
There is a method to eating this soup that makes it an entire meal. First you fill your bowls with the bouillon only, which you garnish with croutons topped with rouille, a spicy mayonnaise that Lulu makes with garlic, red pepper, bread crumbs, olive oil, saffron and fish bouillon. It was passed at the table in the beautiful marble mortar in which it had been made. After you finish your sublime bouillon, you return to the cauldron, add a little more and pile your bowl high with seafood. There are plates in the center of the table for the bones and shells, as most of the fish are whole. There is much controversy over what fish should and should not be in a bouillabaisse; some say that a true one would never have mussels, but I was happy that this one did. Lulu’s had about five different kinds of fish, one of which was rascasse, a thorny-looking Mediterranean creature that is the one everyone agrees must be there, and a variety of shellfish, all purchased that morning at the fish market in Toulon. Every bite was succulent, made all the more so by the bouillon. There’s always bouillon in your bowl to drink up after your last bite of fish, and you don’t stop after your second bowl. It’s imperative that you taste all the different kinds of seafood. That’s why bouillabaisse is a meal.
Throughout, the Peyraud fils had been filling and refilling our glasses with one vintage after another of their fabulous red wines, served slightly chilled on this hot July day. Time stopped; the only thing that indicated that the day was wearing on was the changing light. After the bouillabaisse, Lulu served fresh goat cheese with ripe figs, and Cavaillon melons filled with fresh apricot puree. After about five hours of revelry, as we were finishing our coffees and Marc du Domaine Tempier, I mentioned that this had been my first bouillabaisse. “That calls for Champagne!” exclaimed the ebullient Lucien, and brought out a bottle of pink Champagne, which he chilled in a plastic Moët & Chandon top hat full of ice.
When I finally tore myself away from this magic I wondered whether I should really make that two-hour drive back to Bonnieux. But somehow I felt no worse for wear. The meal had been copious but not heavy, the wine of such a quality that, imbibed slowly and gracefully over the hours, it hadn’t knocked me out at all. I was so exhilarated by everything that the day had offered that nothing could have harmed me. And nothing did, as I drove through the muted green mountains in the sunset, a box of Domaine Tempier wines in the back seat to share with friends at home.
Top photo: A bowl of bouillabaisse. Credit: iStockphoto