Welcome to the Garden of France
Marseille is a cosmopolitan city that embraces cultural influences from North and Central Africa, and strong elements of Provence, a region known for its abundant and magnificent produce. This is why Marseille is often called the “Garden of France”. The city’s culinary culture is almost ancestral, marked by very rich regional dishes such as the soupe au pistou (beans and pasta soup topped with the provençal condiment – pistou – made with fresh basil, garlic and olive oil), the bourride (a fish soup that’s the more relaxed sister of Bouillabaisse) and the pieds-paquets (a stew of stuffed sheep’s tripe and sheep’s feet). All of these dishes are rooted in provençal traditions that have always particularly shined in Marseille. This is partly due to the city’s ideal geographical location on the Gulf of Lion and the Mediterranean Sea and its history as an important port city which has provided gorgeous produce from the sea and mountains.
A Community- and Planet-Driven City
With time, we saw the city’s food culture evolve to a more trendy and avant-garde version of itself thanks to the younger generation of restaurateurs in Marseille. This generation is very aware of the various things impacting the world today, has a greater understanding of the effects of our industry’s activities on the planet and wants to do better for the future. One thing it has in common with those who have been here for a long time is that it sees the importance in supporting each other to face all issues. In Marseille, there’s a real bond between restaurateurs, craftsmen, fishermen and producers, and most people in the supply chain now have an eco-responsible way of managing, delivering, preserving and recycling.
Meet the Producers
Producers are some of Marseille’s heroes. We have incredible people like Fabien Gardon who is one of our responsible fishermen. There’s Pistole who also fishes ethically and specialises in pélamides (Atlantic bonito) of which he offers a fantastic selection. In the 15th district of Marseille, there’s Geoffroy and his stall of the freshest herbs from the region. All of these people and others play an important role in the lives of the restaurants in Marseille. Marché de La Plaine is a lovely market that I recommend visiting to meet these kinds of people. The flea market in Arnavaux is also very important to visit and where you can find a great variety of products. Some fruits worth highlighting are the ones famous in this region but that remain highly underused. Things like figue de barbarie (prickly pear), jujubes (algaes) and flaveur crune, a type of plum which only bears fruit for 15 days. These extraordinary local products have very strong flavour profiles and great nutritional powers. Most of them have a shelf life of three weeks. We use these marvellous products at AM par Alexandre Mazzia, and it’s an unbelievable feeling to help people discover such fantastic flavours. When I invite chefs to my restaurant, it’s an opportunity to share with them ingredients that are rarely used in other regions of France, like diplotaxis (wall rocket), alysson maritime (sweet alyssum) which tastes like cabbage and honey, and a type of local plantain that that has a specific tartness to it.
Marseille By Boat
Fortunately, Marseille still has some uncovered areas to explore, particularly on the GR hiking paths by or near the coast. The Calanques coves of Marseille are really popular. Certain locations can only be reached by boat, such as the Marseilleveyre massif, which has the most gorgeous turquoise water: a blue as beautiful as that of the Pacific Ocean. In my books, all special events are inevitably celebrated at sea. I love to take the boat out onto the Mediterranean to Île Verte (island in La Ciotat, France) or Île des Embiez (island in Six-Fours-les-Plages, France) and pick a restaurant to enjoy with friends. Restaurant L’Île Verte on the same island is one, but most options on these two islands are good. I also enjoy taking friends to eat fish at Fabien Rugi’s place, La Boîte à Sardines. It specialises in fresh fish and seafood. My favourite thing to eat here is the Atlantic bonito. After that, we would leave from the Vieux-Port (the Old Port of Marseille) in a ferry boat to go to Les Goudes (a neighbourhood in Marseille) or Île du Frioul (Frioul archipelago) and enjoy a ride in the sea.
An Emblem of Provençal Life
I like taking friends on a boat ride to Les Goudes for some fishing followed by some bourride at L’Esplaï du Grand Bar des Goudes. It’s a legendary spot that’s been around for a very long time. The tiles on the floor are a hundred years old. The owner, Didier Tani, is very unique. The way he speaks, his generosity and his witty banter make him an iconic figure of Marseille. He’s a true “Chef Patron”: he’s the chef and owner of his establishment and is both a hunter and fisherman who’s extremely passionate about good meat. He’s been a part of Les Goudes for more than 51 years. His father is from the area and has worked around here his entire life. The Grand Bar des Goudes is a typical village bar but is truly representative of the spirit of provençal village life. It’s a perfect place for an apéro and to drink a pastis, a Casanis or a Ricard.
Freshly-Caught Mediterranean Seafood and the Most Delicious Pizza
Alternatively, I would go to Chez Paul for some grilled fish: a timeless Marseille tradition and one of my favourite restaurants. It has the best setting inside a small fishing port, which reminds me a bit of L’Île de Ré (island in France) where I spent my childhood. It too faces the sea and is where you’re guaranteed delicious, freshly-caught fish. I’ve been going to Chez Paul for years. The same conviviality, kindness and spontaneity prevail. It is where I had my first blue lobster caught from the Mediterranean Sea. These fabulous fishes and seafood caught daily are the cornerstone of the menu and there’s always an exceptional variety of them. It’s food that feeds your soul and makes you come alive. Chez Paul is the only place in the neighbourhood with a wood-fire oven. On Sundays, Gégé (the chef) makes pizza with the most amazingly thin and crispy crust.
A Day in the Noailles District
Épicerie L’Idéal is a grocery shop in the Noailles district that uses fresh produce from its own shelves to create a daily menu. It’s nice to have a meal there followed by a trip to nearby market, Marché des Capucins, where you’d find a lot of local as well as African produce, provisions and crafts. Due to climate change, Marseille now sources some things from the Bandol and the Var regions of France. I grew up eating mango, manioc (cassava) and papaya. I used to love throwing papaya on the grill before eating it. The first thing I do when I return to Pointe Noire – where I grew up in the Republic of Congo – is eat grilled fish with papaya. These products are not the easiest to find in Marseille, but I can get my hands on them at the market in Noailles and they’re usually imported from Senegal or the Ivory Coast. Also nearby is Bar La Relève, a local dive bar that makes pretty amazing cocktails.
Suitcase Essentials From Marseille
Marseille has fried dough specialties that are a caricature of famous international pastries like churros, but that have become an integral part of the local culture. You’ll find people snacking on them on their Sunday promenade. Chichi frégi is the traditional donut of Marseille and my favourite local snack. I recommend stopping at L’Estaque (suburban port in Marseille) to have some on the way to the airport. Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest thing to pack in a suitcase, however there are great regional products to buy at the Marseille Provence Airport. Savon de Marseille, for example, is emblematic of the city, and you can find a whole range of it as well as fragrances to take home. It’s also nice to pack some handcrafted things, like pottery, and local herbs like lemon balm, lavender sprigs and the so-called everlasting flowers with scents of fennel and anise. The smell of anise is typical of our city and brings back memories of walks in the mountains and along the sea. It is the fundamental flavour of our beloved pastis, which you can also grab a bottle of before leaving Marseille.
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