Port cities are the best, aren’t they? A salty melange of cultures, a proximity to the sea, vigor, diversity, a gritty crackle in the air… I felt it in Marseille, where a thousand years of seafaring has given way to a vibrant food scene that mixes the cuisines of the Mediterranean — among them, North Africa, Italy, and Spain — with the sunny local flavors of Provence. Oh, and fish, of course. Seven mornings a week, fisherman gather at the Vieux Port to hawk their catch.
There were stranger sea creatures like eels and octopus…
Pretty shells for tourists (like me) called l’oeil de Sainte Lucie, which are supposed to bring wealth…
And a mixed assortment of small fish that’s sometimes called “bouillabaisse.”
We ate the real deal at the Marseille institution, Chez Fonfon (140 Vallon des Auffres): Bouillabaisse (photo left) and its paler, garlickier, winier cousin, bourride (photo left). Both are served in two parts, first as a soup, with croutons that have been spread with aioli or rouille…
And then with potatoes and fish — at least five kinds, which have been poached in the broth. The fish arrives on a separate platter (you can spy it in the background in the photo left) and you cut up morsels to dunk in the soup. From time to time, our waitress would trundle out a huge tureen of soup and ladle out hot spoonfuls. It was a hearty and decadent meal (46€ for the bouillabaisse, 47€ for the bourride) — and very, very garlicky.
But a girl can’t live on fish soup alone, so I was happy to tuck into Au Falafel (5 rue Lulli), a kosher restaurant serving Israeli specialties. The falafel on the assiette de falafel (12€) could have been a little hotter, but I loved their fresh pita, as well as the creamy humous and crunchy salads garnishing the plate. Plus, their house-made hot sauce created enough fire on its own.
Wandering around in search of chickpea cakes called panisses (I never did find any), I came across M&G Traîteur (9 rue St Michel), a gem of a restaurant and take-away shop. Their chicken tagine with olives was hauntingly delicious, savory and tart with the faint bitter edge of preserved lemons. Couscous was extra, but it was the most delicate, finely grained semolina I’ve ever eaten (10€ for tagine + couscous).
My friend Jean-Marc Espinasse recommended the wine bar l’Enoteka (28 bd Notre Dame), saying its owner, Nicolas, was “un mec extra!” And you know what? He was right. Nicolas was extremely kind, super knowledgeable about wine, and we spent a lovely evening sampling some excellent vins du coin, accompanied by simple salads and sausage (approx 35€ for two).
I can’t really recommend the couscous I ate in a smoky, dodgy cafe on the spookily deserted Iles Frioul. But at least it was hot and hearty, and at least the cafe held a few other souls — drunk souls, yes, but I wasn’t complaining (8.50€).
I loved Café Lulli (26 rue Lulli), a charming tearoom with house-baked sweet and savory tarts. One afternoon I drank spiced almond tea called “London Christmas” and read my book. The next, I went back for lunch and sampled all the things I’d seen the day before, like a savory pumpkin quiche and the melting pear-and-chocolate tart in the photo above (approx 27€ for two).
But let’s not forget that Marseille is in Provence — and no trip to Provence would be complete without sampling the regional fare. On my quest to follow Marcel Pagnol’s footsteps (more on this soon), we ate at Le Cigalon (9 bd Louis Pasteur, La Trielle), where Pagnol shot the movie of the same name. The restaurant is in La Treille, a teeny village, which, though perched high above the city, is still considered part of Marseille’s 11th arrondissement! Here, we tucked into a Provencal sampler, (clockwise) artichokes barigoule, ratatouille, stuffed mushrooms and a cassoulette of mussels in a saffron cream sauce (photo left). I also enjoyed the beef daube (but I have to say mine is better).
Alas, I couldn’t overcome my fear of offal to sample the region’s beloved winter dish, pieds et paquets (photo left), or “feet and packages.” The “feet” refer to sheep’s hooves while the “packages” are pieces of tripe stuffed with parsley and garlic, the whole stewed together in a tomato sauce. Our hosts reported that the version at Le Cigalon — a house recipe from 1896 — was delicious. Thankfully the similarly gruesome-sounding alouette sans tête (photo right) was not a decapitated songbird, but rather thin slices of beef rolled with a stuffing of bacon, parsley and garlic, and braised in tomato sauce. Served with pasta, it was a Marseillais version of spaghetti and meatballs. An immigrant from Italy? In this port city, anything is possible.