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On fish stews - a lucky dip

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"The line dividing a soup from a stew is often infirm." Richard Olney

This particular lucky dip has been sitting next door to me on my desk for some time, waiting for an inspired moment, because, truth to tell I was not that enthused. Which often seems to be the way of late with my lucky dips. Indeed a couple of times I have been more than tempted to simply replace the chosen book back on the shelf. But, I think anyway, so far I have resisted, and generally have been able to cobble something together. I do have a vague memory of resisting once, but then again maybe not.

Anyway, the book chosen was Richard Olney's classic book Simple French Food. It was a requested Christmas present many years ago and turned out to be not quite what I expected. Prior to receiving this I had known him only by my Provence the Beautiful Cookbook - a book that I love and which I have used many, many times. It is beautifully illustrated - witness the photograph of Bouillabaisse above - the most classic of fish stews from its pages. Simple French Food, on the other hand is unillustrated, which wouldn't necessarily matter, but the recipes are actually not that simple. Indeed he has a page or two on the definition of 'simple' and it wasn't actually that simple either in itself or in what he decided to take simple to mean, perhaps characterised by the following:

"Simple is the password in cooking today: if food is not simple it is not good." Richard Olney

Which is interesting, considering that it was written way back in 1974. I thought it was more recently than that that we had got into the way of thinking cooking should be a 'simple' thing.

But back to my lucky dip page - an introductory couple of pages on the concept of fish stews - specifically French fish stews of course. Not something we eat very often in this household - other than a very occasional Psari Plaki - a Greek fish stew that I have spoken about before.

Yesterday, however, I got to watch an old Food Safari program on the TV which was focussed on Singapore and in the process of the episode there were a couple of fish stew recipes - one being the famous chilli crab - perhaps not quite a stew, although the crab was cooked in a tomatoey sauce and the other Assam fish - a sort of fish curry.

Which made me think that there is more to fish stew than the Mediterranean. Indeed even in France there are many more fish stews than Bouillabaisse - Cotriade, Matelote, Bourride and Pauchouse to name just a few. Richard Olney listed all of these and several more besides and had these few words to say about Pauchouse, which is from Burgundy and of which I had never heard - shown here at right.

"The Burgundian pauchouse is rather particular. It was traditionally made of a thin, nasty, extremely acid little white wine, the vines of which have long since been pulled up. Those who remember it claim the wine was practically undrinkable but that pauchouses are no longer the same." Richard Olney

Anyway the Singapore program reminded me that around the world people have been stewing fish for millennia. Indeed if you feed 'fish stew' into Google one of the very first recipes that comes up - and it's repeated a few times is Moqueca - a Brazilian version - one example of which is shown here.

After all around the world coastal communities live mostly on fish - river based communities too. Now the simplest, and some would say the tastiest way of dealing with the fish, is to fry them, but a fish stew is also very good, particularly if you have a mix of fish and seafood, or not much fish. A this and that thing. A poor man's dish. So depending on where you are in the world you make your sauce and then throw the fish into it. Voilà fish stew.

"What little time and effort is required is all in building the foundation, creating a flavoursome broth or sauce. ... When that base is right, cooking the fish takes just a matter of minutes." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

The flavourings that go into that sauce depend on where you live in the world and what is available to you, whether it be through logistics or price. And yes, the difference between a stew and a soup is a bit moot. When does a thin stew become soup, or a thick soup become a stew? And come to that, is a braised dish a stew? Or something cooked in a wok?

The other thing that finally brought me to tackle this lucky dip was the fact that Nigella, in Cook, Eat, Repeat, has a recipe for Fear-free fish stew which she prefaces with these words:

"I know a lot of people are hesitant about cooking fish, and I do understand why, but this, my friends, is the recipe to allay your anxieties and free your from fear."

The reason being that you can make the sauce in advance and then just heat it up and pop the fish bits in for a last minute cook - almost literally last minute. Only a few anyway. Because:

"Fish stews differ from meat stews only insofar as most fish require a very short cooking period, being in fact, cooked when thoroughly heated through" Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

This is Nigella's finished result - but honestly all you have to do is to make a sauce of some kind and then dunk your fish in at the end for a quick ten minutes or less cook.

Indeed Richard Ehrlich of the Guardian, whilst beginning with this somewhat daunting statement:

"A proper fish stew takes hours to get on the table. Well, maybe 90 minutes, if you know what you're doing - but it's not the sort of thing you'd think about rustling up for a midweek dinner." Richard Ehrlich - The Guardian

- then goes on to give you the rundown on how to improvise a quick fish stew from whatever you have to hand. And Nigel Slater does something similar, if slightly more complicated:

"I have a way of starting off a fish stew that I thought I would pass on. I put a couple of timid splashes of ordinary olive oil in a fairly deep cast-iron pan, then drop in six anchovy fillets rinsed of their smelly oil and three chubby cloves of garlic, sliced as thin as paper. To that I add a whole bay leaf or sometimes two, a curl of orange peel and a couple of whole sprigs of thyme. I push the anchovies and garlic and woody herbs around in the warm oil with an old wooden spatula, then stand aside and give the anchovy time to dissolve to a sticky paste and the aromatics the chance to warm up. This is the point at which the base flavour of the soup is set - the backbone on which all the other stuff will hang. It gives the stew bigger balls than the usual mimsy kickoff with gently sweated onion or leek." Nigel Slater

And yet it's not a popular dish is it? A fish curry perhaps or a laksa, but not a fish stew. And you know I don't think I ever had one as a child. Or in France come to that. I doubt that many people, even in France make Bouillabaisse. It is indeed far too complicated. And I suspect that all of those other mixed fish and seafood stews are too, although Jamie tries to make it simple and fun too with his recipe. The video below shows you how with a rap song running through it. It will either make you smile or get very irritated. He was young when he made this.


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