SÈTE, France — This Mediterranean port town is famous for its annual Worldwide Festival of electronic music, seven miles of glorious beaches and fish.
Lots of fish.
Sole, hake, sea bass, red mullet, whiting, monkfish, tuna, sea bream, ocean perch, turbot and octopus are among the 90 species fished off the coast of Sète. La tielle, a cuttlefish pie with tomato and spices, is sold in just about every bakery and bistro. It is as ubiquitous as pizza — and an acquired taste.
So every year around the June 29 feast day of St. Peter, the fishermen of Sète get together to celebrate. They honor those among their ranks who have perished at sea. They ask Peter, the patron saint of their profession, for protection. They arm themselves with trident-tipped wooden spears and shields for a waterborne jousting competition from wooden rowboats. And they brag about their fish, consuming large quantities of it with a local rosé.
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“This is the one time of year we all relax,” said José Llinares, the director of Sète’s fishing port. “It’s the moment you set aside your sadness, you bury your woes. Everyone respects the traditions. It’s a little like Christmas.”
Sète (it rhymes with wet) has been a fishing center since Louis XIV authorized a port here in 1655. An enclave of 45,000 people in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, it is built around a hill, with the sea on one side, a lagoon on the other and a network of canals joining them.
Unlike the coastal towns of the Côte d’Azur to the east, with their yachts, luxury hotels and famous visitors, Sète is working class. The port area smells of the sea, fish and a hint of diesel. Fishermen boast that when the tuna catch is included in their tonnage, Sète is the largest fishing port in the Mediterranean. (And that’s not including its huge oyster and mussel farms.)
But the business is suffering. Tuna fishing is limited by strict international quotas; sardines and anchovies have nearly disappeared. The soaring price of fuel has driven many fishermen to sell their boats for scrap. Less than a decade ago, there were 30 large fishing trawlers here; now there are only 14.
Still, as Llinares said, this was a weekend for celebration and eating. For the occasion, the town of Sète published a cookbook with dozens of residents’ favorite recipes; it is already in its second printing.
At the restaurant La Coquerie, which has a Michelin star, much of the conversation focused on how to properly prepare la bourride à la Sétoise, a local specialty of monkfish traditionally cooked with leeks, onions, carrots and parsley, and smothered with a garlicky aioli.
BOURRIDE À LA SÉTOISE
4 to 6 servings
1½ cups olive oil, plus more as needed
1 leek, thinly sliced
2 medium onions, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
3 sprigs parsley, leaves removed and chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup white wine
2 to 2½ pounds monkfish, skinned and boned
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1. Make the base: Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in Dutch oven or other large lidded pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the leek, onions, carrots, tomato, parsley and about a third of the minced garlic. Reduce heat to medium, season with salt and pepper, and cover. Cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes.
2. Add wine and 1½ cups water and cook for another five or 10 minutes, or until vegetables are very tender. Transfer mixture to a food processor and purée until smooth. Set aside.
3. Cook the fish: Season fish with salt. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet, add fish and cook over low heat, three to four minutes each side. Work in batches, adding more oil as needed to keep fish from sticking.
4. Return purée to Dutch oven along with fish and any juices. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until fish is cooked through.
5. Make the aioli: Combine the remaining garlic, a pinch of salt, egg yolk and lemon juice in a bowl; whisk to combine. Begin to add the remaining cup or so of oil a drop at a time, whisking constantly. Once mixture is emulsified, continue to add oil in a steady stream until fully incorporated and mixture is thick, with the consistency of mayonnaise. Season as needed.
6. Using a slotted spoon, gently transfer fish to a plate and keep warm. Adjust seasoning of the base. Remove base from heat and whisk in the aioli. Add fish back in before serving.
— Adapted from “Larousse des Cuisines Régionales,” by Alix Baboin-Jaubert