Credit: Earl Carter

Provençale fish soup

Annie Smithers is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. Her latest book is Recipe for a Kinder Life. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Earl Carter

We talk a lot about waste these days. And a great deal about the horrendous pilfering of the oceans and the devastating effect this will have on our futures and the future of the planet. It is a subject many of us grapple with every day in our choices. Many would say the choice is simple, just live differently and give up all foods that continually damage the planet. Unfortunately the problem is never that straightforward and the solutions entail a complex dismantling of the world that has evolved.

The world’s food cultures are based on practices and environments that existed long ago. We have not always been as absurdly greedy or wasteful as we are now. If you look carefully you will find myriad inspiring dishes that use everything edible from a creature. One of the things I like to do is target these recipes that use what are usually discarded ingredients. If we are going to fish our oceans, which man has done for more than 40,000 years, it is incredibly important to use every part of the fish that we possibly can.

This is the most beautiful fish soup recipe – it hails from Provence, France – which uses the bones and, sometimes, the head of the fish. It’s easy to forget when you buy an expensive fillet of fish that there’s a whole head and skeleton going to waste, and there is so much good meat left on those bones. This recipe also reminds us that, as years go by, we need to remember the lessons from the past and use food in a way that respects both the beast and the earth.

This recipe is colloquially known as a Provençale fish soup. It’s a rich, hearty dish best served with garlic croutes and rouille. I have made it here using just the skeletons, as cleaning fish heads can be a bit of a struggle for a novice. For best results the soup needs to be passed through a food mill or mouli with the medium disc fitted. This creates the distinctive texture of the soup. And if you happen to find yourself in Paris in the next little while, I can certainly recommend the version you will find at Le Dôme.


Serves 8

  • 1 large pinch saffron threads, presoaked in 30ml boiling water for a couple of hours
  • 3 good-sized fish skeletons from snapper, kingfish, blue-eye, and a couple of fish wings from similar fish (avoid pink or oily fish)
  • ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium leek (white and pale green parts only), chopped
  • 1 fennel bulb, stalks discarded, chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, chopped
  • 2 large celery ribs, chopped
  • 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 125ml Pernod or pastis
  • 6 cups water
  • 3 cups chopped tomatoes, or 850g tin peeled or chopped tomatoes
  • salt
  1. Wash the fish bones thoroughly, removing any visible blood or innards. Chop into quarters with the butt end of a sturdy cook’s knife or a small cleaver. The bones don’t need to be cut clean through, but this allows them to fit better in the pot. Set aside.
  2. Place a large saucepan or small stockpot on the stove. Heat and add the olive oil. Add the leek, fennel, carrots, celery, garlic and bay leaves. Cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all the vegetables are soft. Add the broken up fish bones and wings and cook for a further five minutes, stirring to prevent anything sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add the wine and pastis/Pernod. Bring to the boil. Add water, tomatoes and saffron and return to the boil, then turn to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for a few minutes. Carefully lift all the obvious bones from the pot, taking a minute to brush all the cooked fish meat back into the soup.
  3. Force the soup through a food mill into a large heavy pot. If you come across larger bones that disrupt the mouli, remove by hand. Once you have pushed everything you can through the mouli, discard the solids. Check the seasoning.


This is best made after you have made the fish soup, as you cook the vegetables in just enough fish soup to cover them, then purée and emulsify with some olive oil, as if making a mayonnaise.

  • 1 pinch saffron
  • 2 large potatoes (I use nicolas or Dutch creams), peeled and diced
  • 2 red peppers, roasted and peeled
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 red chillies, deseeded if you don’t want it too spicy
  • about 375ml fish soup
  • salt
  • 150ml virgin olive oil
  1. Soak the saffron in a tablespoon of boiling water for several hours.
  2. Place the saffron, potatoes, peppers, garlic and chillies in a saucepan and cover with the fish soup. Add a good pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, turn to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are soft. Stir occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Set aside from the heat to cool.
  3. When cool, purée in a food processor. Pour in the olive oil in a thin stream while the processor is running. Check the seasoning and add more salt if necessary. Store in the refrigerator.

To serve

  • 1 baguette
  • 1 clove garlic
  • olive oil
  • 750g white fish fillet (hāpuku or blue-eye)
  1. Preheat your oven to 180ºC with the rack in the middle.
  2. Cut the baguette into five-millimetre slices, place on a baking tray, sprinkle with olive oil and toast in the oven until golden brown and thoroughly dried (about 15 minutes). Remove from the oven, cut the garlic clove in half and rub over each slice of baguette.
  3. Skin and debone the fish, or ask your fishmonger to do this. Portion the fish into eight pieces and steam gently. Reheat the soup. Pour the soup into wide bowls, and place in each bowl a piece of fish and a croute mounded with rouille. Serve extra rouille and a bowl of croutes on the side.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 8, 2018 as "Soup de grace".

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