I should confess here that once upon a time fish stew was the stuff of my nightmares- literally. I remember fish soups from childhood holidays in France; I found them utterly repugnant and would never have dreamed of even touching the seafood with my finger, let alone putting it into my mouth. I was, as I've said before, the quintessentially Picky English Child, who arrives in France and wonders why meat has blood oozing out of it and why fish doesn't always come battered. Campsites were social places and my parents always seemed to befriend French people with fish fetishes (or so it appeared to me); I remember one party where my brother and I were forced to go and there was very little we would eat. I repeated, over and over, polite but unyielding, 'non merci', to caviar, to what looked like raw bacon (I'd never had that kind of ham in Britain), to smelly cheese, indeed, to everything but the hunks of white baguette. Luckily my grandmother sneaked us back to our caravan for a Nutella sandwich and some Opal Fruits, smuggled in from England to appease us when necessary. Going out for dinner was okay, because there were creperies, where I inevitably ordered a ham and cheese crepe (I once braved a chocolate crepe, but the chocolate was too dark for me and I left it; I saw that as the result of changing a routine and learnt my lesson). There were also restaurants with lobsters and crabs on display, waiting to be killed and served up, that Grandma ordered, but these places also had non-fishy offerings and so I wasn't forced to starve.
Fastforward a few years. In September 1995 I arrived in the south of France to begin a year as an English assistant in two French schools. I had no idea what to expect: Cambridge didn't prepare me one bit for independent living in another country, other than ensuring that I was au fait with that country's literature and philosophy. I suppose that's a start, but it doesn't help when you're confronted with bewildering bureaucracy on the one hand, and an infuriating laid-back refusal to take anything seriously on the other. For the first month, I didn't even know what my timetable was because the two schools were at war with each other, using me as the pawn in their struggle. I felt tired all the time, worn out by listening to the southern French accent for hours on end, by the unfamiliar heat in late September, by waiting in queues at various bureaucratic places only to be told that the office was closed for a four hour lunch break. In the middle of all this, I was invited out for dinner a lot, which was welcome, but terrifying; nobody ever asked me what I did and didn't eat. I can't remember if this was a mid-90s thing (before we all got allergy obsessed) or if it was a French thing. Certainly in Cambridge we hadn't needed to consider food in that light: we either ate in the canteen, which ran a rota of stodgy but safe dinners (macaroni cheese, chicken casserole, deep fried fish) or we cooked, which in practice meant that we made pasta, stirfries or warmed up pizzas. Nobody cooked particularly adventurous food so we never really needed to ask what people ate or did not eat. In France, though, the first time I went out it was to the local tennis club, where my landlady's boyfriend was a member; we ate outside, very late in the evening, and the meal was bouillabaisse with aioli and crusty bread. I remember seeing the huge bowl in front of me; I remember thinking I would be sick if I had to eat it, but I had no idea how to refuse. In the end I ate it slowly, tempering it with bread, chewing methodically and deliberately not tasting it. I wasn't sick. I hoped it might be a one-off but it wasn't: people were always inviting me for a casual supper and every time that supper turned out to be bouillabaisse. After a while, I came to like it, which was a relief. (The same happened with olives. To my eternal regret I never managed to get to like raw tomatoes)
Despite my slow conversion to it, I have never cooked fish stew, partly because Simon only recently discovered that he liked seafood other than prawns and partly (this is going to sound feeble, but I'll say it anyway) because it's messy food and I like food to be neat; I like smooth soups more than chunky ones, for instance. It's all about perception and nothing about taste. I do eat messy food, but I tend not to cook it. Anyway, yesterday I went to the fishmongers and got the wherewithall for Jamie's fish stew. I bought a teeny bit of monkfish, a filleted sea bass, mussels, no clams because there weren't any, red mullet, and langoustines. I should say that I won't be going back to that fishmonger (it wasn't the one I've been going to, in town; it was another, further away) because she was utterly graceless and her filleting was decidedly odd.
Onto the recipe. The stew is served with saffron aioli (mayonnaise smashed with garlic, saffron and little salt and lemon) and crusty bread. To make the stew part, I simmered white wine, garlic, basil stalks and a tin of tomatoes for 10-15 minutes or so, then added all the fish and seafood in one layer (to do this, you need a very big pan. The biggest one I had was just big enough), put the lid on, and simmered for 10 minutes or so.
When the stew was ready, I toasted two slices of bread and put each in the base of a serving bowl. I poured over the stew and topped with fennel tops, basil leaves, a little olive oil and a big spoonful of saffron aioli.
We both enjoyed the stew a lot. I liked how the sauce soaked into the bread, and I loved the saffron aioli - it went really well with the tomatoey broth. Mmm. It is messy food, both to look at and to eat, but it tastes great. Shame that most people I know wouldn't touch it with a bargepole. I wonder if they should have the French treatment - come round and be told it's fish stew or just bread for dinner, tough if you don't like it/have an allergy/prefer meat. Once I invited someone for dinner and she asked what I was cooking; it was a mid-week dinner and I replied 'chicken curry'. She twisted her face like a contortionist and said 'I prefer lamb - could you do lamb for me instead?' This woman is so picky that she has a social as well as a food problem (she basically only likes lamb curry, beef pizza, and biscuits); I won't get started on her eating habits or we won't be eating tonight, but I dream of revenge in the form of a scary fish stew, complete with saffron mayo and protruding seafood limbs.