We are driving through a pretty, albeit rather new-build suburb of pink and terracotta houses surrounded by bougainvillea and palm trees while our driver narrates a few points of interest: the spot where two men were gunned down the month before, burnt-out cars, and the block where dealers and police had a shoot-out last year. On the way back, we witness a full-scale police stop-and-search operation on a gang of kids. This part of southern Marseille is notorious, apparently, even if it looks pretty blameless. Jonathan Meades, the writer and broadcaster who has lived here for a couple of years, comments that the hard men “only shoot their own” and Marseille is totally safe.
This took place on our way to the Calanque de Sormiou, the road to which takes us out of the suburbs, up via a steep track to a high pass and then down by a truly precipitous road into the blissfully empty little bay at the bottom of the hill. The beach is almost deserted – it is late afternoon – and there is no activity coming from the ideally situated restaurant, entitled, simply and poetically, “Le Lunch”. I swim for about a minute, as the water is surprisingly chilly for June. Andy, our photographer, is in the water about an hour, criss-crossing the bay with his elegant crawl. I lie in the sun. We stroll back up the steps from the beach and enjoy a glass of pastis on the terrace of Le Château, the only other place of business in the bay. Le Château is a metal-windowed concrete hut that barely lives up to its name, but, sitting on a sandy promontory overlooking the bay, with rocks towering on all sides and the deepest blue sea stretching out in front, it needs little in the way of décor. As the sun goes down we dine exceptionally well on crudités with anchoïade, an ambrosial sea urchin flan and grilled sea bass.
It is all a total shock. I associate the Côte d’Azur with crowds and the desecration of a once-beautiful playground. I associate Marseille with a lot of things, but not with the unspoilt Riviera that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Dick Diver and friends encountered 80 years ago, and yet here it would appear to be, albeit in a less idealised form. The city itself – despite the programme of works on the Vieux Port that necessitate a jack hammer to start banging away outside my bedroom window at seven o’clock in the morning – is a marvel. There are long and refined avenues of bourgeois respectability. Moody little streets in Le Panier quartier lead into shaded squares with little restaurants that have a casual attitude towards book-keeping and, very possibly, 21st-century notions of health and safety. There are very grand and pompous old buildings, some stunning examples of modern architecture such as Will Alsop’s Le Grand Bleu and Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation (Meades has recently moved into a flat there), and it remains to be seen how Norman Foster’s makeover of the Vieux Port will pan out. Meanwhile, everywhere in Marseille, there is food.
The market at Noailles, leading off the city’s main thoroughfare, La Canebière, is a proper one. It is not a show-off sort of market but a practical, working market with an absolute abundance of fish, fruit and vegetables on stalls running up the hill towards Noailles métro station. Off one side, near the bottom of the market, is the Rue Longue des Capucins, a narrow street packed with stalls and shops selling meat, spices, hot pastillas, boreks, various fresh breads, more vegetables, kitchen equipment and a variety of household materials. To my mind, a city that can still provision itself from its centre is a city that still has a heartbeat. When the food shops and the vegetable market left Soho and Covent Garden, London died a little, as did Paris when Les Halles decamped to the strange parallel universe that is the Marché de Rungis.
Another surprise in Marseille was the existence of food that I thought had been killed off by the terrible triumph of nouvelle cuisine 30 years ago. Elsewhere in the folkloric theme park that is Provence, stuff like anchoïade and aioli, proper soupe de poissons, artichauts à la barigoule and pieds et paquets – dishes I read about in Elizabeth David and in J-B Reboul’s La Cuisinière Provençale – has become either disastrously traduced and over-refined or totally forgotten. The essence of such dishes is simplicity and bold, clear flavours. Our first lunch at Chez Madie Les Galinettes on the Quai du Port was a revelation. We ordered red peppers with anchoïade, artichauts à la barigoule and a “tatin” of red mullet to start, and the three dishes appeared, totally artless and true to their origins. We followed with a roast shoulder of baby lamb that was as good as it should be and, in the interests of research, a pieds et paquets, that legendary combination of sheep’s feet and faggots that I have read about and never got round to eating. The paquets are supposed to be tripe but the gagging smell that they gave off led me to think that they might well have originated a little further down the intestinal tract.
The next day, at Chez Vincent on Rue Glandevès, we ate pizza and then calf’s liver, served with some serious sauté potatoes and haricots verts, both scattered with raw garlic. I have always contended that the French use garlic with restraint but that is hardly the case at Chez Vincent. I loved it. If pizza sounds like a dull intervention, this is also a misapprehension. It is everywhere in this city and totally integrated into otherwise “French” menus. Bases are crisp without being wafer-thin, but the point is the topping. At Chez Vincent the base is daubed with a rich tomato sauce and then thickly laced with anchovies and olives. The choice often doesn’t extend much beyond “blanc”, “tomate” or “anchois”, but then it doesn’t really need to.
One last meal. We are dining with Jonathan Meades and his wife Collette at Le Souk, on the north quay of Le Vieux Port, drinking a Moroccan vin gris that becomes palatable after a bottle or two. A huge bowl of grain is placed in the centre of the table alongside a tureen of a rich vegetable stew. There are bowls of harissa sauce, chickpeas and sultanas. Then a succession of meats: boulettes (little chicken meatballs in a rich gravy); an extremely tender shank of lamb served without sauce but braised in a powerfully saffron-laced liquor; a méchoui, or charred and roast shoulder of baby lamb and a plate of excellent merguez sausages. We drink, gossip and chomp away for some time and Meades explains why this is the city of the dispossessed – of Arabs, Jews and pieds noirs from Algeria and other parts of North Africa, and that it has always been the great assimilating city of the Mediterranean.
As to bouillabaisse, Meades advised strongly against it, writing to me in advance: “Bouillabaisse is an old Provençal word which means literally “two stage rip-off on a couple of plates whilst Marius who’s just out of chokey and his pimp brother who was in the Gypsy Kings sneer at you.” We disobeyed and went to see it being made at Chez Fonfon. Barring the fact that I stepped deep into a pool of aioli some hapless cook had spilt on the floor, it was an impressive performance. The problem is that it is no longer a dish but an industry, and thus it carries with it that air of bored melancholy that pervades the restaurateur who makes his living out of repeating the same dish over and over again, usually for tourists. It is also wildly overpriced, passim. It used to be said that bouillabaisse could never be made outside Marseille. It may now be the case that it should be made and eaten almost anywhere else. But, I must admit, the soup at Fonfon did indeed taste close to divine.
Rowley Leigh is chef at Le Café Anglais, London
Rowley’s Marseille directory
+33 (0)4 91 25 05 37
+33 (0)4 91 25 08 69
Le Marché de Noailles (also known as Marché des Capucins)
Off La Canebière
Chez Madie Les Galinettes
138 Quai du Port
+33 (0)4 91 90 40 87
25 Rue Glandevès
98 Quai du Port
+33 (0)4 91 91 29 29
140 Rue Vallon des Auffes
+33 (0)4 91 52 14 38
3 Cours Saint Louis
+33 (0)8 11 45 45 45
(4 Rue des Recolettes) is a splendid kitchen shop.
For information go to www.marseille-tourisme.com
La vraie bouillabaisse
Although most recipes omit the fact, every chef I have ever spoken to agrees on one point, viz that you must first make a good broth before you cook the fish you are going to eat in the bouillabaisse. The broth is made with the smaller, bonier fish and it is here that the perhaps crucial process of “bouille” (boil), and “abaisse” (reduce), takes place. Also, unlike most recipes, chef Alexandre at Chez Fonfon stressed that it took a good three hours to make a good broth. Rascasse, despite an excellent and very amusing essay in The New Yorker by A.J. Liebling suggesting the contrary, is almost unique to the Mediterranean and difficult to replace. Breams, mullets and gurnards can all be used in the broth and monkfish can be used in the final offering. Above all, do not replace with any oily fish such as mackerel or sardines.
A recipe, or perhaps performance, for 10.
50 ml olive oil
2 tomatoes, halved
6 cloves of garlic
100 g tomato paste
A sprig of dried fennel
150 ml white wine
A piece of orange peel (not at Fonfon, but in most recipes)
1 heaped tablespoon sea salt
3 kg fish: Rascasse (scorpion fish, with notoriously poisonous and very sharp spines); Rascasse Blanc Vive (weaver); Conger eel, cut into large chunks; Grondin (sea robin)
Heat a deep and wide casserole with the olive oil, add the coarsely sliced onions and stew for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes, the whole garlic cloves, the tomato paste and fennel and stir together briefly before adding the whole fish, neither gutted nor scaled. Add the white wine and the salt and orange peel and stew briefly for five minutes before covering with plenty of cold water.
Bring this broth to the boil and continue to cook on a fairly high heat – a slow boil or fast simmer – so that it bubbles away quite steadily. As the broth reduces, continue to top up with more water so that it is replenished at least four or five times over an optimum period of three hours.
Once the broth is cooked and the fish is disintegrating, ladle the broth into a conical strainer and push it through with the back of the ladle. Once as much as possible has gone through, discard the fish pulp and return the broth to the heat. Reserve 100ml of broth for the rouille.
500 g large potatoes, cut into thick (1cm) slices
3 kg more fish: Rascasse; Conger; Turbot (or John Dory); Weaver; Gurnard
1 heaped tablespoon saffron and paprika powder (a little cayenne is permitted instead of paprika)
2 tbs chopped parsley
croutons (plus garlic for rubbing)
Carefully slip the new fish, with the potatoes, into the broth and simmer them gently for 15 minutes. Lift the fish out on to a platter, cover with chopped parsley and keep warm. Sprinkle the saffron and paprika mix into the broth and whisk. Pour the broth into a tureen and take to the table with some rouille and some croutons fried in olive oil and rubbed with garlic. Fillet and serve the fish after the broth, with a few potatoes and a little more broth to moisten.
1 potato (cooked)
A generous pinch of saffron
2 chillies (or 1, to taste)
4 cloves of garlic
3 egg yolks
150 ml olive oil
100 ml fish broth
Juice of a lemon
Salt & pepper
Harissa to finish, if available
Chop up the potato, the chillies and the garlic and put in a small pan with the broth and the saffron. Reduce until very thick and then cool. Put in a blender and mix.
Add the egg yolks, mix again and then add the olive oil in a thin trickle, adding the lemon juice if it becomes too thick. Add the harissa at this point.
Artichauts à la barigoule
“Barigoule” normally connotes that the artichokes are stuffed with a mushroom mixture. This version is simpler, more robust and the better for it. In French and Italian markets, one can often buy the artichokes already peeled. You are unlikely to have much luck if you look for such a service elsewhere. It is essential to use baby artichokes, in which the interior “choke” has not yet developed.
12 baby artichokes
100 ml white wine vinegar or 1 vitamin C tablet
50 ml olive oil
4 thick slices of pancetta or streaky bacon
4 thin carrots
A few sprigs of thyme
½ bottle dry white wine
Using a sharp knife, cut off the tops of the artichokes just above the heart and snap off the stems. Trim away any green parts of the artichoke, turning it as you do so to give a nice rounded finish. Dip the artichokes in a vinegar and water solution, or in a solution of water and vitamin C, in order to stop them discolouring.
Peel the onion, halve it through the root and cut into thin half-moons. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and stew the onions gently for five minutes before adding the bacon cut into thin strips. Peel and slice the carrots and add these to the mix. Drain the artichokes and place these in the pan, together with the white wine and the thyme and just enough water to submerge them. Cover with a round of greaseproof paper and cook at a gentle simmer for 30 minutes, when the artichokes should be perfectly tender and the liquid reduced to a flavoursome liquor. Strew the stew with some thin ribbons of basil. Serve with crusty bread.
Roast peppers with anchoïade and olives
Devastatingly simple, but very good. The peppers can be substituted for crudités.
6 red peppers
2 cloves garlic
Blister the red peppers on an open flame until the skin is blackened all over. Place the peppers in a plastic bag and seal with a knot. After 20 minutes, take the peppers out of the bag, peel off the blackened skin and remove the stalk and seeds. Lay them on a serving plate and scatter a few olives and thin slices of garlic over them, together with a large spoonful of anchoïade.
For the anchoïade
Chez Madie gave us a mayonnaise-based anchoïade: I prefer this coarser version, which we had as a dip for raw vegetables at Le Château.
1 tin anchovies
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 tbs fresh breadcrumbs
Drain the anchovies, reserving their oil, and pound them to a paste with the garlic in a mortar and pestle. Add the breadcrumbs and a little lemon juice and then whisk in the canning oil and a little olive oil to make an emulsion.
Tartare of prawns with tomato and avocado
A beautiful starter we had at Toinou, the palace of shellfish just off La Canebière. The secret is the quantity of lemon juice, which cuts into the very savoury raw prawn meat.
6 large, ripe tomatoes
90 ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
400 graw fresh prawns
Peel the tomatoes by dropping them for 20 seconds in boiling water and then refreshing them in cold water. Halve the tomatoes and remove the seeds and then chop them into small dice half a centimetre square. Season them with sea salt, a few chilli flakes and marinate them in a third of the lemon juice.
Halve and peel the avocados and chop them into dice the same size as the tomato. Season these as before, adding all the lemon juice, and leave to marinate for 20 minutes.
Shell the prawns, slit them down the back and remove the digestive tract. Rinse in several changes of water and make sure they are absolutely clean. Using a large and very sharp knife, chop the prawns into a coarse mince.
Drain the avocado of surplus juice and spread into six ring moulds (approx. 10cm in diameter). Drain the tomatoes and spread over the top of the avocado, flattening the surface with the back of a spoon. Spread the prawn mixture over the top. Sprinkle with sea salt, trickle with good olive oil and serve with thin toast and a few mixed leaves.
Red mullet tatin
Totally simple: I distinguished no other flavourings – apart from a rather irrelevant and garish salad – in this beguiling dish. You will need a kilo of mullet and a bucket-load of patience if you fillet and pinbone the fish yourself.
serves 6 as a starter
600g small red mullet fillets, washed and pinboned
150g puff pastry
Brush a round sheet of greaseproof paper with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt and a few grains of white pepper. Place the fillets of red mullet closely together and skin side down on the paper inside an ovenproof frying pan approximately 24cm in diameter. Season the fish.
Roll out the puff pastry thinly, cover the fish with it and cut to fit. Bake in a medium-hot oven (180C) for 15 minutes, or until the pastry is cooked. Invert the dish over a large plate and turn out the pie. Remove the paper, brush the fish with a little more oil and brown under a hot grill before serving.