Slow Fish in Action
The Worlds Biggest Bouillabaisse
Once again this year, the fishermen from Sanary, regular Terra Madre and Slow Fish participants, organized a celebration of tradition and their daily catch.
Not one detail was out of place. The sun, the refreshing breeze from the mistral, the tents covering the 48 tables, the colorful crowd of hungry diners, the atmosphere of joy and generosity, the band, the Young Voluntary Firefighters and the crane: everything was ready for the celebration organized by the master fishers of the Sanary Prud'homie, creators of the world's largest bouillabaisse, certified by Guinness World Records.
For 20 years now, the fishermen have been inviting the community to take part in their annual party, and the event's fame has been steadily growing. "We live more than 800 kilometers away, but it's the second time we've come," said an enthusiastic young woman, one of the 1,250 bouillabaisse fans who had flocked to Sanary to try the famous fish soup, typical of the south of France. "What is this?" asked a Dutch tourist, puzzled but intrigued, having ended up by chance in the large open space at the edge of the sea, surrounded on three sides by long tables. Hundreds of people were wandering around leisurely in a buzz of conversation, but gradually they began to gather around the huge bonfire overseen by the firefighters.
At this point, the crane hoisted a colossal metal pot over the fire to heat up the bouillabaisse prepared during the previous day and that morning by the fishermen, using their daily catch. Meanwhile, 1,250 connoisseurs whetted their appetites with toasted bread topped with rouille, the garlic, saffron and chili mayonnaise that typically accompanies bouillabaisse.
In accordance with tradition, the fragrant fish soup was served first, distributed by the fishermen and the young firefighters. The garlicky rouille-spread croutons were eagerly dipped into the broth. Then came all kinds of seafood-fish, crabs and cuttlefish-cooked directly in the soup together with potatoes. Bouillabaisse was originally a dish for the poor, a one-pot meal, and the recipe involves the use of whatever was caught that day. The names of the fish passed from table to table: horse mackerel, meagre, conger eel, forkbeard, monkfish, damselfish (which according to a proverb must always be caught in pairs), amberjack and others.
After the meal was finished, the band turned up the volume and invited the guests to dance to pop and rock, waltzes and tango, and of course tunes from a traditional accordion. Every year, the fishermen from the small Provençal port spend weeks working to prepare the party, all on a volunteer basis, but the results fill them with pride. "The people are happy and that makes us happy, it repays all the effort and hard work," said Jean-Michel Cei, the first prud'homme of Sanary.
The prud'homie (literally "board of arbitrators", but actually a professional association of fishermen) is a typically French institution dating back at least to the 12th century. These days, 33 such institutions exist, spread along the coast from Port-Vendres to Menton, and also in Corsica. The fishermen of a specific area elect a veteran of the trade as first prud'homme, choosing from among those who have already had experience as a second or third prud'homme. The role comes with power: In the case of disputes, the first prud'homme can give his verdict and inflict sanctions, though he always works in collaboration with his colleagues. By establishing usage rights for each type of fishing, the prud'homie regulations encourage fishermen to invest in differentiated and selective techniques, rather than specializing in a single craft. Each boat has an average of 12 different types of fishing gear, each of limited capacity. So as not to jeopardize coastal fishing productivity, it is essential to focus in turn on different seasonal concentrations of different fish species, without depleting the local resources. It is also necessary to know how to sell the product on the local market, making an especial effort to vary the daily selection.
The prud'homme can also intervene to protect specific species during their reproductive season, as with lobster and scorpionfish, and protect the youngest fish by setting a minimum size for hooks and net meshes. For centuries, this ancient institution has governed the fishermen in a highly effective way, with the aim of managing a common resource that is so valuable to our diet. Throughout their history, the prud'homie have been able to overcome serious obstacles, such as appropriations under the ancien régime (which held a monopoly over the tuna fisheries, weirs and other fishing installations), the resistance of young fishermen coming from outside who refused to follow local rules and the abolition of guilds in 1791.The prud'homie have also emerged unharmed from half a century of extreme productivism and the industrialization of Mediterranean fishing. They will also manage to survive the European Union's fisheries management, at times influenced by the productivist fishing and industrial aquaculture lobby, at times by the environmentalist Cassandras, whose messages with the most media impact seem to leave little space for artisanal, small-scale, environmentally friendly fishing.
Click here to see a photo gallery from the event
Click here to read an article from the newspaper Nice Matin (in French)