Thursday, September 16, 2010

Marseille

8 August 2010

I spent the afternoon of August 8 in Marseille.  Marseille is the second largest city in France (after Paris), and it is a big port town on the Mediterranean.  Marseille really has a culinary culture all its own - there are so many dishes linked specifically to this city rather than to Provence or the Cote d'Azur in general.  Probably the most famous dish here is bouillabaisse, a seafood stew containing at least 5+ kinds of fish and/or shellfish and many other ingredients to develop the flavor.  Due to its position on the Mediterranean and its long history of trade ties all around the sea, it is also a big center for immigrants, and it is probably the best spot for cuisine Maghrebine (North African food) in France.  Given its unique food, Marseille was one of the first cities I determined that I wanted to visit.

However, Marseille also has a reputation as rather a seedy, unsafe city.  With its high immigrant population, it was certainly one of the least affluent places I visited.  Given the many warnings I had read about staying in Marseille, I decided it would probably be better to stay in Aix-en-Provence and take a day trip down to Marseille (a 6E, 30 minute train ride).  Having spent some time in Marseille, I think I made the right choice.  I think what struck me the most was the market I walked through.  Street markets abound in French cities, and often you'll see vendors with a table set up to sell clothing or small household wares next to those selling fruits, vegetables, and cheeses.  You'll also see the occasional vendor with smaller wares (sometimes sunglasses, shoes, or small goods) set up with just a blanket on the ground and no table at all.  The one market I wandered through in Marseille was pretty much exclusively of the blanket-vendor variety, and the goods for sale were totally hodgepodge: one shoe, a pair of shorts, a jacket... No consistency, and low quality - most of this stuff did not look new.  Even those who had a table would sell things like cell phone chargers - none of which were packaged, and with no consistency of brand or type.  Definitely made me wonder where the goods had come from...

Most cities in France, particularly the larger ones, are host to a number of beautiful historic buildings.  The gare (train station) in Marseille certainly fit the ticket:

Gare de Marseille (train station)
However, apart from the very center of town around the Vieux Port (the harbor, e.g. tourist central), Marseille was more run down than much of what I saw in the rest of France.  In most cities that I visit, I make a point of getting a little off of the beaten track, away from the most touristy areas, to see where people really live.  I wasn't entirely comfortable in Marseille, so I stuck to the straight path along the Cannebiere (Marseille's main street, appropriately called the "Can of beer" by English-speaking troops that passed through here in WWII) down to the Vieux Port, and the area immediately around the harbor.  There certainly was a lot that I did not see of the city, but I saw all I felt I needed to.

As always when I arrived in a new city on this trip, one of my first tasks was to figure out where I was going to eat.  I spent a lot of time everywhere I went reading menus and figuring out where would be the best place to eat.  Soon I will discuss how to find a good restaurant in France, but for now I'll stick to what I had to eat in Marseille.

I knew before even going to Marseille that I was having bouillabaisse for lunch.  The name for this ubiquitous soup comes from two french words: bouillir (to boil), and abaisser (to lower, or, in this case, to lower to a simmer), because first the soup is brought to a boil and then it simmers for a long time to develop the flavor.  The soup is a gastronomic masterpiece composed of a stock made from several types of fish and flavored with onions, vegetables, herbs, and saffron.  The soup is served with croûtons (small, thin crunchy toasts, not unlike croutons we put on salads in the US, but fresh and better) and rouille, an orange mayonnaise-like spread made of olive oil, garlic, saffron, and cayenne pepper.  Making bouillabaisse takes a lot of time, effort, and ingredients, and as such, it is not cheap.  I had read that to have an authentic bouillabaisse, you should expect to pay at least 35E, so that was my basic guideline for choosing a restaurant.  You see bouillabaisse on every menu in the area, but I ultimately decided to eat at Le Marché Métropole, which had their bouillabaisse listed at 42E, but also offered a three-course prix fixe menu with an entrée (that's French for appetizer; what Americans call the entree is called the plat principal in French.  If you consider that entrée means "entrance" in French, it makes more sense for that to be the name of the first course rather than the main course; but I digress), main course, and dessert for 17E.  One option for the main course was a "dégustation" (tasting) of the bouillabaisse.  Sounds perfect!

For my entrée, I had the panier du jardin:

Anchoïade with crudités
A basket of crudités (raw vegetables) - peppers, cucumbers, cauliflower, fennel, carrots - and an anchoïade: a spread made of anchovies, black olives, olive oil, garlic, and, I think pretty clearly in this case, salt.  The anchoïade was pretty much inedible because it was so salty.  It was like drinking ocean water.  It was nice, however, to have some fresh veggies.

And then for the pièce de résistance, the bouillabaisse:

Bouillabaisse
The soup was a nice smooth consistency and a beautiful rusty orange color from the saffron, with a few large hunks of fish in it.  It was served with croûtons, rouille, raw halved garlic cloves, and shredded cheese.  Though it was called a dégustation, I had a huge bowl of soup - far more than I could eat, especially with all of the accompaniments!  Made me wonder how much you get if you just order the bouillabaisse...

The broth by itself had a rich, fishy, full flavor.  But when you added a croûton (after rubbing it with the garlic, and then liberally spreading on the rouille), a bite of fish, and a little cheese to your spoon... Oh my.  So many textures - the smooth soup, the toothsome fish, the satisfying crunch of the croûton.  And so many flavors all coming together created incredible depth and dimension - words I noted down at the time to describe the flavor include "big, bold yet well-rounded, smooth.  Definitely fishy, but not overpowering."  You could really taste the layers that went into preparing the dish.  Very satisfying, and highly recommended!

After gorging myself on bouillabaisse, croûtons, and rouille, I still had dessert.  I ordered the fromage blanc au coulis de fruits rouges:

Fromage blanc au coulis de fruits rouges
Fromage blanc (literally, white cheese) is a thick, slightly sour, creamy "cheese" that is somewhat akin to a sour greek yogurt.  A coulis is essentially a sauce, and being made of fruits rouges (red fruits) typically involves some combination of raspberries, strawberries, currants, and other small red fruits.  A very simple (dare I say boring) dish, but it was refreshing to have a cool finish after such a rich, warming dish - especially since it was a hot day!

After taking a couple of hours for lunch, I set out to start walking around the city.  To the East of the Vieux Port, you don't have to walk too far inland before you get up pretty high and you can see out over the harbor and surrounding area:

View over the Vieux Port to the sea
I wandered along rue Sainte until I found this shop:

Four des Navettes

The Four des Navettes, or Navette Oven, is a Marseille institution.  It is the oldest bakery in Marseille, having first opened in 1781.  It has been producing navettes, the essential Provençal cookie, since it opened, and claims to have invented the pastry.  Navette means boat or transport, and supposedly these oblong cookies are meant to represent the boat that carried three Marys to Sainte-Maries de la Mer.  Every year on February 2 at 6:00 am, the Archbishop of Marseille blesses the city and the first batch of navettes to come out of the oven.  Navettes from this shop have won all sorts of prizes as symbols of France and of Marseille.  Quite a lot of history for one little cookie!  So, of course I had to buy a navette:

Navette
Navettes are typically flavored with fleur d'orange, and this one had a definite orange flavor, with just a little sweetness.  But I have to say, for all of the hype, I was pretty disappointed: mostly, it was just dry.  Maybe I was a little dehydrated (why oh why are there no fountains in Marseille???), but I found the texture crunchy but not crisp, and very drying in the mouth.  It was one of the few desserts I bought in France that I did not finish.

After buying my navette, I walked around the Vieux Port for a while.  Elissa, you would have appreciated all of the boatsssss. :)

A view to the Mediterranean

Boats on the Vieux Port


To the East of the Vieux Port lies the Abbaye Saint-Victor, a church situated on top of a high hill, looking over the city:



The port lends Marseille a very different feel from the rest of Provence. It's still colorful and sunny, but it is removed from the purple lavender fields and ochre sunflowers that color the Provençal countryside.  Here, instead, the brilliant blues of the sea and sky color the town.  The people, too, look different from the rest of France - much darker skinned, both due to the strong Mediterranean sun and the high number of North- and sub-Saharan African immigrants.

After walking around most of the Vieux Port, I worked my way down to the Southern edge where the narrow inlet of water in the center of the city opens up into the great blue expanses of the Mediterranean:


Some of the old walls of the city still stand guard at the mouth of the harbor:


Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise, but I was amused to find people swimming in the sea at the mouth of the Vieux Port:


I didn't swim, but I did stick my toes in.

Around 5:30 pm, I decided I wanted to head back to the train station.  I had planned on getting couscous for dinner to take advantage of the excellent North African food for dinner, but I had trouble finding any couscous places in the areas I visited.  Finally I stumbled across a small shop on the way back to the train station that sold couscous à emporter (to go), so I ordered a couscous merguez:

Couscous-merguez
Merguez is a spicy, beef-based sausage common in North African cuisine.  It is found pretty commonly in France, too.  When I ordered the dish, the cook put the raw merguez on to cook at that time, so I could see how fresh the product was.  The sausage was hot and fresh, and just a little spicy.  The couscous was in tiny grains, and pretty flavorless.  I was also given a vegetable dish with carrots, zucchini, peppers, and a couple of vegetables I didn't recognize that was served in a dark orange sauce that tasted of chickpeas and tomatoes and spices.  Overall the food was fine, but nothing special.  I think to really get a good, authentic couscous, I would have needed to go into a North African neighborhood to the corner restaurant where everyone goes for some good home cookin'.  Maybe on my next trip...

After eating my couscous, I took the train back to Aix for the evening.

Coming soon: Aix-en-Provence - Cézanne, calissons, and markets!

A bientôt,

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