When épiceries first set up shop in France in the Middle Ages, they predominantly sold spices – les épices, as their name implies. In the 19th century, they added foodstuffs on their shelves, evolving into magasins d’alimentation générale. Some of these general stores are North African-owned corner shops. Open 24/7, they play an indispensable, yet oft-unsung role in the social fabric of a neighborhood (similar to NYC’s bodegas and Lisbon’s minimercados.)
Others are épiceries fines, offering gourmet goods and seasoned advice on how to cook with them. Unlike impersonal supermarkets that sell pre-sliced salami suffocating in plastic, these intimate shops spark a conversation on the difference between coppa and bresaola. Épicerie l’Idéal fits somewhere in between, both a community fixture and culinary wonderland. Plus, thanks to its convivial café, you get the extra perk of being able to dine in-house.
In the center of this market café, a deli case is stuffed with cheese, charcuterie and a rainbow of apéro-friendly nibbles like basil and almond pesto, taupe anchoïade and pink pickled shallots. Atop the counter, wooden boards of plump focaccia sandwiches and chocolate buckwheat cookies tempt customers. The shelves that line the narrow space are neatly lined with colorful jars, bottles and gastronomic goods sourced from France and beyond. “This is not a jewelry store,” insists Julia Sammut, Épicerie l’Idéal’s ebullient owner. “Here, people can taste and interact. It’s all about pleasure.”
The enthusiastic epicurean “lives to share.” That’s why she hosts tastings with her favorite Sicilian winemaker and puts handwritten notes and cutout hearts on the products she’s currently adoring. Why she makes handpicked holiday parcels and offered custom food boxes during the Covid-19 crisis. Each week, she sends an email newsletter peppered with recipes, raves about products and lots of exclamation points. It is so infectious that you’ll want to stop everything to cook – and rush to her shop for the ingredients.
Julia’s passion for food is in her DNA. Her mother, Reine, and sister, Nadia, run a 100 percent gluten-free Michelin-starred restaurant in the Luberon that was started by her father’s parents in 1948. Julia’s multicultural roots – a mix of Sicilian, Tunisian and Maltese – have profoundly shaped her palate and her prose. She started out as an acclaimed food writer specializing in all things Mediterranean. Now she tells stories through her épicerie.
“It’s the only quartier that moves me,” she explains. “Unlike in the Rue Paradis boutiques, people look you in the eyes here.”
Though Julia grew up in Lourmarin, a charming village just an hour from Marseille, her family would go to Avignon for their urban fix instead of the bustling port. Ironically, it was only after she moved to Paris and co-founded the influential food guide Le Fooding that she discovered Marseille.
Descending the grand staircase of the Gare St. Charles into Noailles, the culinary journalist had an “emotional shock” when she encountered the fragrant food stalls and multicultural markets. She immediately rented an apartment the next day and split her time between Paris and Marseille while reporting on the food scene in le Sud. After a few years, Julia wanted to do more than “just live here. I wanted to participate.”
Though she never intended to follow her family’s foodie footsteps, Julia couldn’t shake the épicerie idea from the moment it unexpectedly popped in her head. It had to be in vibrant Noailles. “It’s the only quartier that moves me,” she explains. “Unlike in the Rue Paradis boutiques, people look you in the eyes here.” She secured a space on the Rue d’Aubagne with the help of Marseille Habitat, an organization that rents older buildings to promote urban revitalization, and set sail in 2016.
While Épicerie l’Idéal is “very personal” (Julia’s portly cat, Rosette, often sits behind the cash register), she humbly admits that it is also very much a shared story. The market is a “labor of love” for the ten-person staff. They treat each other like family – as well as the many regulars who return for the familial warmth. Each person brings their own skills to the table. Clarisse is the baking whiz. Claire has the most fantastic writing. Jeremy is a flirt while Moussa is a beacon of calm. Everyone looks out for each other, from bussing tables to helping to deflect annoying customers.
Julia met the chef, Aurélien, ten days before opening. Thanks to an “instant connection that transcends this planet,” she lets the “conductor of the kitchen” create a daily menu out of local produce and whatever he plucks from the shelves. Think panko-fried chicken with pickled cucumbers and gomaisho, or a potato salad tossed with smoked trout, dill and oxidized vinegar from the Jura to “give them a horseradish-like kick,” explains Aurélien.
Heavily influenced by no-fuss Italian cooking, ingredients are the stars of the show at Épicerie l’Idéal. A zucchini pesto elevates the green squash to a new level of flavor. One of my most memorable bites was bombolini, donuts, served with roast apricots and candied fennel, which coaxed out the sweetness of the anise-y bulb. “There has never been a dish that has left the kitchen that I’m not crazy for,” enthuses Julia. Though she “has no idea what we’re serving for lunch” when she arrives at 8:30 a.m., the kitchen “whips out amazing dishes every time.” She likens the incredible energy to what a rock star feels before going on stage.
For eating in, you have your choice of a late breakfast, a leisurely lunch or an afternoon snack cobbled together with what is left in the kitchen. If you’re ordering to go, find picnic and apéro fixings at the deli counter or stock your larder from the teeming shelves. The fish-print butcher paper makes everything you buy feel festive – as do the logo-printed cotton tote bags.
Before, Julia used to scout everything – artisanal Cavalieri pasta from Puglia, melets (brined anchovies with fennel seed) from nearby Martigues and the flavorful Peruvian non-refined cane sugar that they thoughtfully serve with the café (note: order the café con panna – with homemade whipped cream – for a luscious bit of sweet).
Now, she’s flattered that artisans approach her asking to be part of Épicerie l’Idéal. Last year, the indefatigable entrepreneur launched products that blend her Sicilian and French origins. The line includes pissaladière, the onion, anchovy and olive blend slathered on Provençal tarts, and condiment sublime, a zesty mixture of lemon, garlic, piment d’Espelette and olive oil that brightens up grilled fish. “To think I make a harissa in Sicily that is sold in Noailles – this is a recap of my ancestry,” smiles Julia.
There have been critics about Noailles’ gentrification, blaming Épicerie l’Idéal and the handful of recently opened foodie spots for bringing in too many bobos (bohemian-bourgeois are French hipsters.) Yet, by attracting people to Noailles through her épicerie and her articles, Julia has helped boost business for the entire neighborhood.
Ever supportive of her neighbors, she also sells loukoum and orgeat (almond syrup) from nearby Patisserie Journo and brandade (whipped salt cod) from Au Grand Saint-Antoine. Her “Noailles Power” passion has lured locals to rediscover a neighborhood that is both beloved and scorned for its multiculturalism. The épicerie’s success has also helped put Marseille on the map for Parisians and culinary travelers from across the globe.
I first met Julia across the street at Le Carthage, where I was eating pâtisseries orientales with strangers I had shared a table with next door at Chez Yassine. When they asked how an American had found her way to the popular Tunisian joint, I told them it was thanks to Le Fooding. “I wrote that piece!” exclaimed the woman behind me. Julia was overjoyed that she had helped me find her favorite Tunisian table. When she writes, her gastronomic glee practically jumps off the page. At Épicerie l’Idéal, you get to dig in firsthand.
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