Les Pieds dans le Plat
I’m sitting in a garden at the back of Les Pieds dans le Plat in Marseille’s ‘bobo’ (bourgeois bohemian) Cours Julien area, glorying in sunshine and a word-of-mouth recommendation that has brought me to a chalkboard lunch menu offering three courses for just €21. There are rabbit rillettes scented with coriander and parsley served with a spoonful of pungent pesto, and tender hake with aubergines and courgettes blended with cumin, turmeric and coriander seeds. The real revelation, however, is the lemon rind served alongside it. Boiled seven times until its yellow fades to white, passed through a mouli and mixed with lemon juice, salt, olive oil and sugar – the result is a delicious sharp-sweet splodge.
Les Pieds chef, Xavier Zapata, reflects on the diversity of cultures that have settled in this ancient port – French, North African, Italian, Armenian, Corsican and more – on his menu. Such variety makes it an exciting place for food, he says. ‘It is less conservative than Lyon or Strasbourg and is more fun for a chef as people appreciate creativity,’ he explains. Being able to source amazing local fish and vegetables from Provence also helps.
Marseille is France’s second largest city. Nicknamed ‘Planet Mars’ by the French, its gritty reputation has, for a long time, held back tourism here, but recent investment and a peeling back of the layers of grime have revealed a belle basking by the sea and now both French and foreign food lovers are rediscovering it.
I start at the Vieux Port (old port) – where superyachts bob alongside fishing boats. Here, at the small fish market (8am-1pm daily), species of alien- and not-so-alien-looking fish are sold from the calloused hands of those who caught them early the same morning.
Also at the waterfront here is L’Escale Marine (22 quai du Port, 00 33 49 191 6742), a café and bar where shelves are lined with Provençal specialities, and outside tables are busy with punters sipping La Cagole, the city’s beer.
Chez Madie les Galinettes & Vanille et Noire
Further along the waterside at Chez Madie les Galinettes (138 quai du Port, 00 33 49 190 4087), I eat a dish of clams, thick with cream, mustard and fresh thyme before hopping up some steps to Le Panier, the city’s tightly woven old town. At Vanille et Noire I get my hands on an almost mythical black ice cream made with vanilla and seasalt. Its maker, Nicolas Decitre, won’t reveal the recipe, but it’s said to get its colouring from algae. Whether that’s true or not, it’s sensational.
Où est Marius?, Maison Empereur & Saladin
Fabulous produce sourced only from Provence – including Camargue knives and poutargue (mullet roe) – can be found nearby at Où est Marius?, and I’m in ecstasy back near the Vieux Port at kitchen and hardware shop Maison Empereur and Saladin where I buy herbs, spices, teas and pulses by weight.
Les Navettes des Accoules
At bakery Les Navettes des Accoules I try navettes, biscuits shaped like little boats, local to Marseille, that are made without yeast and flavoured with fleur d’orange. I buy bags of these as well as cucciole – crunchy, wine-scented biscuits from Corsica.
Les Cabanons de Fonfon
I take the biscuits with a bottle of Provençal rosé to my two-storeyed room (there’s a little kitchen downstairs) at Les Cabanons de Fonfon, in the fishing port of Vallon des Auffes. The port is a brisk half hour walk from the centre of Marseille, but it feels like another world. Fonfon is also home to Chez Fonfon, a restaurant famous for its bouillabaisse – stay in one of the cabins here and buy a jar of its fish soup (throw in rouille, aioli and croutons and it’ll cost you €22.50 for two) to heat up in your pied à terre.
Viaghji di Fonfon
Also in the Vallon is Viaghji di Fonfon, which does well-priced wine, meat terrines, potted prawns and roasted vegetables from between €5 and €7 a dish. There are a few tables, but you can take cushions and plonk them by the harbour outside.
Another evening, I settle at the Vallon’s Chez Jeannot with an anchovy and olive pizza (Marseille is famous for pizza; there are food trucks with wood ovens selling it all over the city), mesmerised by a spectacular view of the sun setting under the arches of the bridge across Corniche du John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
But it is at Restaurant AM that I begin to understand why those in the know suggest bypassing bouillabaisse if you’re on a budget. Bowls of bouillabaisse regularly sell for €50 a head, but here, at lunchtime, €35 buys you four amuses-bouche and eight courses of the most technically-adept cooking, each little plate an artistic and palatable paean to the regional larder. Having opened in June 2014, chef Alexandre Mazzia landed his first Michelin star this February.
His kitchen produces dazzling stuff. Black bread (coloured with powdered carbon) is light and served with lemon butter. A crusty walnut biscuit comes with red pepper and lemon, and scattered with tiny petals. There are marinated salmon eggs with smoked milk, and sea bream with candied bacon and white chocolate, and a rainbow of a plate with cod, squash, carrot and wild cress. It may be fantastical food assembled with tweezers, but the tastes produced are astonishing. And perfectly framed by the restaurant’s small, zen-like dining room and open kitchen.
In the city’s 8th arrondissement, Restaurant AM is a few stops from the centre of Marseille on the metro or a scenic trundle on the coast-skirting number 83 bus. As journeys to Planet Mars go it’s not the most direct route but, for a true flavour of the city, it’s a detour worth taking.
How to get there:
Audrey Gillan stayed at Les Cabanons de Fonfon, where double rooms cost from €90, room only. Return flights from several UK airports to Marseille cost from £60 (easyJet.com). More info: marseille-tourisme.com andvisitprovence.com
This feature was published in August 2015
Photographs: Audrey Gillan, Matt Munro/Lonely Planet Traveller, Pauline Daniel/Visit Provence, Sophie Spiteri
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