Marseille (population, some 1.7 million) has long been independent-minded, but it has also been so outright rebellious that it has been forcibly reined in by Paris--a number of times. Louis XIV took it by force, turning the port cannons around from their normal positions facing the sea and pointing them inward on the uppity citizenry. Even as recently as 1936 Marseille has been taken over by the state in an explosive corruption scandal.
At the same time there has long been a fascination with the port. Today, the most successful soap opera on French television, Plus Belle La Vie, is based in Marseille. You can buy anything from baby bibs and pens to christmas ornaments, all emblazoned with the show's logo... And of course there's Ligue 1 football/soccer (Olympique de Marseille, or l'OM, just slaughtered the Languedoc Roussillon team on Wednesday, if you care to know).
A recent article in the newspaper Le Monde by François Thomazeau (best known for his Marseilles-based detective stories) discussed Marseille's membership in the Cities On The Edge campaign--as well as Marseille's 2013 coronation as a European City of Culture. (Liverpool was a City of Culture in 2008, and Istanbul is 2010's City). Along with the five other often-maligned port cities that make up the Cities On The Edge--Liverpool, Naples, Bremen, Gdansk and Istanbul--Marseille has chosen to play up its melting pot present, tumultuous past and sometimes louche reputation. The article, intriguing and worth a read, has since been translated online.
It is the oldest--the first--city of France, founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. It continued to serve as an essential hub for the Romans, who eventually simply took it over. Its strategic and economic importance have guaranteed it a continuously turbulent, fascinating history in the centuries since then. Already by the late 1700s, it is said that more than half its population came from somewhere else. Today, it remains in large measure defined by its colorful immigrant population, in good and not-so-good ways.
Still somewhat leaden from my on-going bout with bronchitis, I only stayed one day, long enough for me to see that like its most famous soup, the bouillabaisse, Marseille is certainly a heady mix of ingredients. (You can see this musically as well: it is the center of French (black) hip-hop, yet boasts a gorgeous old Opera, with highly regarded ballet and opera performances). I missed the big Provençal santon fair, though all the Christmas lights were still up and sparkling around the ship-filled Vieux Port (Old Port). But I admired the old architecture, caught the daily fish market in the Vieux Port, and even successfully ventured into the twice-a-year frenzy that is les soldes.
And yes, I had a (pricey) bouillabaisse for lunch, at Miramar, a rather stuffy culinary institution known for its defining bouillabaisse. The portions are brobdingnagian, better suited for a Goliath who has a thing for seafood. I amused myself counting nearby fur coats and designer sunglasses--kept on in the restaurant as well, natch--in between spoonfuls of steaming stew and broth-soaked croutons slathered with rouille (a whipped sauce made of olive oil, saffron, lots of garlic and chili). I wear leather shoes, carry a leather bag; who I am to point the finger at mink-wearers?
For dinner I went to the antithesis of Miramar. Behind the imposing town hall in the Vieux Port, there is a wide limestone terrace occupied solely by a large number of immense pots of olive trees in careful formation. Behind this pleasing sight you will find the small Café des Epices. And please, do find it if you are in Marseille. You can thank me later.
Photo from Cote Sud.For less than half the cost of my lunch I ate more than twice as well, in the highly convivial, utterly relaxed atmosphere overseen by young chef and owner Arnaud Carton de Grammont. The menu changes regularly, but the formula remains the same: one generous amuse-bouche, followed by a choice of two starters, two main dishes, and two desserts. The chef warmly welcomes you and explains the day's offerings; the only difficulty is deciding which dish you will forsake.
My meal began with an airy cream of butternut squash, unexpectedly topped with intensely fragrant sautéed escargots and an ethereal cream of garlic. Having the choice between a chestnut risotto with its seared foie gras, and leeks in a coriander-inflected chicken bouillon, adroitly drizzled with white truffle oil and served with scallops a la plancha, I opted for the latter. It was a nuanced seduction, but the main course really stole the show. I went with pollock (akin to cod) roasted in the crispy skin, served with slowly braised fennel and astonishingly delicious, sweet stewed red cabbage, or compote de choux rouge.
Associating squash and snail is surprising enough, but white fish and red cabbage seems nearly anathemy at first blush. But oh, how it worked beautifully. That was the best tasting fish I'd had in years. I struggled not to get closer to his handkerchief-sized, open kitchen to find out just how he made that magnificent, ruby-colored compote. I struggled not to ask when he left his busy kitchen to check, twice, to see whether I was happy with my meal. It is the first time I have ever really enjoyed red cabbage. Why, oh why didn't I ask?
Dessert was a thick slice of pineapple that had been cooked for twelve hours in spices yet retained a fresh lightness, which was balanced by a serving of a frothy, complex sorbet made from the pineapple core, rendered non-fibrous somehow.
As you can see, I was able to end a coughing- and bureaucracy-filled day quite nicely, walking past the still waters of the Vieux Port, my cheeks still glowing from animated conversation with fellow diners, excellent food and the general wonderfulness of the world.
The success of Carton de Grammont's casual bistro is not accidental, being built upon his experience in a series of Michelin-starred restaurants, and his work and travel as far afield as Uruguay. His restaurant is in the vanguard of a wave of fresh restaurants gastronomiques, as Alexander Lobrano well illustrates in France Today online ("Marseille: Beyond Bouillabaisse", December 7, 2009). You can find the coordinates and reviews for the Café des Epices in the online Michelin guide here.