The Culinary Treasures of Marseille
The French port city is emergingas a foodie hotspot where eclectic gastronomic offerings take center stage
"Marseille isn’t France. Marseille isn’t Provence. Marseille is the world," said the famous French film director, Robert Guédiguian. Of course, Marseille is French and the city is in Provence but it is also a melting pot of cultures from across the Mediterranean.
Since its founding in 600 B.C.—when, according to legend, a Phocéen sailor married a local Gallic girl, whose father gave them Marseille as a wedding gift—the city’s port has been shaped by centuries of immigration: Corsican sailors in the 1500s, Italian builders from the mid- 18th century, Armenians fleeing the genocide from 1915 onwards, Algerians arriving post-1962 independence, and many more, have settled here. Nowhere is the diversity more evident than in Marseille’s food and the city is celebrating its eats extra hard in 2019, a designated year of gastronomy.
For years, there have been just two or three places in Marseille with a Michelin star. However, in 2019, this number upped to six. At the center of this constellation is celebrated chef Gérald Passédat, widely considered a culinary ambassador of the region. Passédat’s three Michelin-starred restaurant at Le Petit Nice, a charming Relais & Châteaux seaside hotel, has been named one of the country’s best restaurants for its seafood platters, dishes of raw fish and crystal caviar.
Then there’s Alexandre Mazzia whose restaurant AM has just bagged two Michelin stars. Mazzia was born in the Congo, and incorporates surprising global ingredients into his seafood tasting menu: tapioca from Africa, kumbawa fruits, satay and sake from Asia. Rising stars are making their mark, too.
Most notably, British chef Harry Cummins and Québecois sommelier Laura Vidal with recently-opened La Mercerie which focuses on locallysourced ingredients. Although yet to be crowned with a Michelin star, they were awarded ‘Best Newcomer’ this year at the World’s Best Restaurant Awards.
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Alongside this Gallic glamour, France’s second largest city revels in its rustic simplicity. Pungent grilled sardines, raw rust-red urchins, and briny oysters, and the many kinds of squid can all be enjoyed stripped back, served a la provençale—sautéed with garlic, parsley, and generous glugs of olive oil. The city’s signature dish is Bouillabaisse which has developed over the centuries as a one-pot meal in which poor fishermen threw rockfish – several species of sea creatures, and at one time unsellable – fresh off the docks into a large iron caldron of boiling fish stock to feed the family.
True bouillabaisse includes at least four kinds of fish, and is served in two parts: the soupe de poisson (broth), rich with tomato, saffron and fennel; and the cooked fish, de-boned tableside and presented on a platter. On the side are croutons, rouille (a bread-thickened garlic-chilli mayonnaise) and grated cheese, usually Gruyère. The rouille is then spread on the crouton, topped with cheese and floated it in the soup.
Pizza is another Marseille classic. Integral to the local diet since Neapolitan immigrants arrived at the turn of the 20th century, the city was the site of France’s first pizza truck (around 1962). In this seafaring city, the classic pizza comes with anchovies. Or there’s moit-moit: half anchovy, half cheese or a ground beef and onion arménienne, a sign of the city’s sizeable Armenian community. There’s a pizzeria on every street corner, including legendary addresses such as 65-year-old classic Chez Sauveur or La Bonne Mère, famous for their crust, which they proof for 48 hours.
Alongside the quintessential French cuisine is the blindingly exotic. Underlining the city’s deep-seated status as a melting pot, the Noailles quarter, nicknamed the ‘Belly of Marseille’, is a North African enclave. Rotisserie chickens and steaming paella perfume the souk-like streets battling with the color and pungent smell of spices.
The beating heart of Noailles is Le Marché des Capucins where North African snacks, pastries and flatbreads jostle with fat olives and whole fish. Popular pit-stops include Tunisian leblebi at Chez Yassine, Lebanese pita sandwiches at Le Cèdre, burlap sacks of spices at Saladin, and Algerian date-stuffed bradj at the street-food stand across from Saladin.
Couscous is another big thing – and this year sees the second year of the festival ‘Kouss Kouss’. And it’s no surprise that Marseille is being hailed as the world’s couscous capital, with a rich 2,000 year history as a crossroad between Europe and Africa, where couscous, one of the great staples of Mediterranean cooking, originated.
No meal in Marseille is complete without a liquid accompaniment. This is wine country, after all – and apéro is an integral part of daily Marseille life. Similar to happy hour, apéro happens post-work or pre-sunset, often spilling into the night. To sip, there’s the region’s famous pale-salmon rosé (Provence is the largest rosé-producing area in the world).
Or there’s pastis, which originated in Marseille, a cloudy anise-flavored spirit consisting of liquorice root, star anise from Asia and Mediterranean anise with a bouquet of Provencal herbs lending a distinctive tang to the mix. Just another intriguing reason to visit France’s unsung second city.