At sea in the old days, fishermen cooked their meals in a chaudière, hence the word chaudrée for fish stew. The term migrated with cod fishermen to the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia, and thence to the New World as chowder. Chaudrée was once as important on the Atlantic coast of France as Bouillabaisse along the Mediterranean. Like Bouillabaisse, Chaudrée is a whole meal and there are many versions. This simple recipe from the port of Fouras, near La Rochelle, contains plenty of onions, butter (a regional specialty) and a variety of fish, always including cod. Today I would expect to find hake, whiting, pollock, and possibly conger eel as well.

The secrets of a good Chaudrée are described in La Cuisine du Poitou, a local cookbook originally published in 1932. “To any recipe, add a thread of lemon juice towards the end of cooking, another while eating. Serve in a deep dish, heated and as thick as possible. Before pouring in the chaudrée, garnish the bottom with little pieces of good fresh butter.” Just follow this advice!

Serves 4

  • 2 pounds/900 grams mixed fish fillets, without skin
  • 1/2 cup/110 grams/4 ounces butter
  • 4 onions (about 1 1/2 pounds/675 grams total), peeled and quartered
  • 5 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 cups/500 milliliters/16 fluid ounces dry white wine
  • 3 cups/750 milliliters/1 1/4 pints water, more if needed
  • 1 small bunch of parsley (about 1 ounce/ 30 grams)
  • 1 large bouquet garni
  • Salt and pepper
  • Baked croûtes made with 1 baguette, sliced
  • 1 lemon
  • Large flameproof casserole or soup pot

Wash and dry the fish and cut it in 2-inch/5-centimeter chunks. Melt half the butter in the casserole and spread the quartered onions and garlic in the bottom, pressing the cloves into one of the onion pieces. Lay the fish on top, putting firmer fish in first, with more delicate ones on top. Pour in the white wine and add enough water to just cover the fish. Pull parsley stems from the sprigs, setting the sprigs aside. Tie the parsley stems with the bouquet garni, add it to the chowder with salt and pepper and bring to a boil over medium heat, skimming often. Lower the heat and simmer for 4 to 6 minutes or until the fish are just tender.

Transfer the fish with a draining spoon to a tray and set it aside. Increase the heat and boil the broth until well flavored and reduced by about half, 25 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile make the croûtes and keep them warm. Chop the reserved parsley sprigs, cut the lemon in half lengthwise, and divide one half into 4 wedges.

When the broth is ready, discard the bouquet garni and the cloves, leaving the quartered onions. Add the juice from the remaining half lemon, taste, and adjust seasoning. Return the fish to the pot and warm it briefly. Dice the remaining butter and put it in 4 warm soup bowls. Spoon in the chowder, sprinkle with the chopped parsley, and perch a wedge of lemon on the edge. Serve very hot, with the croûtes passed separately.

photo by France Ruffenach
by Anne Willan, Chronicle Books, 2007.