In the announcement of the current edition of Novel Food, I wrote: "I am reading Chourmo, a novel by Jean-Claude Izzo (I am actually reading the Italian translation from the original French), the second volume of his Marseilles Trilogy. I won't say more about the book now, because I may choose to feature it..." I have made my choice and here I will tell you a bit more about the novel and its author.
- As I have written in this post, the creators of the three characters, Andrea Camilleri, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Jean-Claude Izzo, respectively, were friends (Vázquez Montalbán and Izzo have died)
- Like Salvo Montalbano and Pepe Carvalho, Fabio Montale loves good food
- Again like Salvo Montalbano and Pepe Carvalho, Fabio Montale lives close to the Mediterranean Sea.
As somewhat of an aside, I like the name Fabio Montale a lot. Fabius was a Roman family name, the nomen of the gens Fabia; Montale is the last name of one of my favorite Italian poets, Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale. Jean-Claude Izzo shares with his character the fact of being the son of immigrant parents. This informs their sensitivity to the conditions of immigrants and their children.
Fabio Montale is the protagonist of three novels by Izzo: Total Chaos, Chourmo and Solea (together called the Marseilles Trilogy). Chourmo is the second one. In the first one (Total Chaos) Montale is a policeman. In Chourmo, he has retired from that job, but ends up investigating a murder, because the victim is the son of a cousin.
Izzo's novels have a strong sense of place. They are rooted in the ancient port city of Marseilles. In the words of one reviewer:
Izzo conveys a very Gallic sense of disenchantment and fatalism. It's a complicated portrait of a city, loving and nostalgic, yet sad and angry.
The New Yorker says:
But what makes his work haunting is his extraordinary ability to convey the tastes and smells of Marseilles, and the way memory and obligation dog every step his hero takes.
What does the title of the novel mean?
He smiled. "And there's the chourmo. Know what that is?"
I knew. Chourmo, a Provençal word derived from chiourme, the rowers in a galley. In Marseilles, we knew all about galleys. No need to kill your mother and father to find yourself in the galleys, just like two centuries ago. No, these days, you just had to be young, whether you were an immigrant or not.
Then, there is the chourmo-spirit:
You weren't just from one neighborhood, one project. You were chourmo. In the same galleys, rowing ! Trying to get out. Together.
A review of the novel and various links are available on this page. Two more pieces of information:
- The Italian word for chourmo is ciurma
- French actor Alain Delon played Fabio Montale in the movies based on Izzo's trilogy (here is a sequence from Total Khéops, in French).
Montale owns a small boat and likes to go out in the morning to fish. Food and wine are mentioned throughout the novel. Early in the story, old Fonfon reminds Montale that, as a kid, he only ate soup with croutons (zuppa con i crostini), without any of the fish that Fonfon himself, Montale's father and other friends had caught. This reference put me in the mood for fish soup (zuppa di pesce). Shortly before the climax of the story, Montale thinks about soup — at least he does so in the Italian translation (of which my English version follows):
It was the time when Marseilles stirs. When people ask themselves what kind of soup they will eat tonight. West Indian. Brazilian. African. Arab. Greek. Armenian. Vietnamese. Indian. Provençal. Or from Réunion. There is a bit of everything in the Marseilles melting pot. Something for every taste.
In the English translation, the subject of the sentence is "food" instead of "soup:" I could not find the relevant excerpt of the original French, so I don't what the passage says there (also, the English version has Italian instead of Indian in the passage quoted).
Once I was in the mood for soup, it was a question of deciding which one. Bouillabaisse was a possible choice. However, I wanted an easy version of the traditional zuppa di pesce alla marsigliese. In browsing the web, I found one that I liked in the book The Soup Peddler's Slow and Difficult Soups: Recipes and Reveries by David Ansel. The book was already in my wish list after I made several times (and always enjoyed) the Armenian Apricot Soup — which incidentally would have been also a good choice for the event, since Armenian is in Montale's list. In any case, bent on bouillabaisse, I got the book and besides making Bouillabaisse Marseillaise, I also made Bouktouf, another good fit, since it is described as coming from Algeria.
There are many recipes for Bouillabaisse on the web (for example Julia Child's recipe). I was happy with Ansel's straightforward one, and simplified it further by skipping the rouille and the croutons. It wasn't until I had made it a second time that I realized I had repeated myself, since Pepe Carvalho also inspired me to make fish soup, his caldeirada. What can I say? I like fish soup and I am always willing to try different versions.
You can read the details of the recipe here. I pretty much followed the recipe as written, halving the quantities, as I was making soup for two people, not 8 to 10. Here are the changes I made to the recipe:
- In the freezer, I had some fish stock (brodo di pesce) I had previously made. It was not enough, so I added some water, but the total amount of liquid was a bit less than indicated (based on my personal preference for thick soups)
- I did not have chili powder, so I added a small peperoncino broken into three pieces to the soup. I had forgotten that there was some peperoncino in the fish broth as well, so the resulting soup was a bit on the hot side. The second time I made it, I toned it down.
- I used a can of fire roasted diced tomatoes and a cup of fresh crushed tomatoes (see this video for the technique)
- I did not peel the potatoes (All Red potatoes from the new crop) and cut them into 1/8"-thick rounds
- I chose fish based on what was available at the store, namely rock cod, ling cod (locally caught) and sturgeon; I used only half a pound of mussels, since I am not a big mussel fan; the second time that I made the soup I omitted the mussels in favor of (medium) shrimp.
In David Ansel's words:
The combination of fish stock, saffron and white wine will destroy you. It will leave you weak and helpless and quivering with unrequited desire.
I am not sure I recognize my reaction in this description. I certainly got a second helping and so did my husband.
I should have eaten before unleashing this mess. [...]
A nice plate of spaghetti all'amatriciana with a glass of red wine. A Tempier rouge, for example, from Bandol. Maybe I'll find it in the hereafter.
I have the third volume of the trilogy (Solea) on my bookshelf and I am looking forward to reading Montale's adventures in that book.
Update. As you can read in the Comments, Maria Rosa mentions a trip to Marseilles and a visit to Fabio Montale'svplaces. She kindly sent me three photos related to the subject of my post and I am publishing them with her permission. Thank you, Maria Rosa!
This, as mentioned above, is my contribution to the eleventh edition of Novel Food, the literary/culinary event that Lisa of Champaign Taste and I have been co-hosting for some time, since a conversation on the food in Montalbano's novels gave us the idea of marrying literature and food in a blog event.
This post contains my portion of the roundup of the event and a link to Lisa's portion.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian (and French) words mentioned in the post (note that I pronounce Fabio Montale in Italian):
or launch the bouillabaisse audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]