If Marseille is a city of 111 villages, Cinq-Avenues is a village that feels like a mini-metropolis. From boulangeries to boucheries, the neighborhood brims with personable local businesses rather than impersonal chain stores. Some places have seen generations pass through their doors – like Maison Calambo, a family-run spot that has been shucking shellfish since 1946.
Named for a species of gray shrimp found in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, this small écailler (the French word that is both noun – oyster seller – and verb – to open an oyster) embodies the prized Gallic custom of seafood stands. On Christmas, New Year’s Eve and during other celebrations, French families gather around teeming shellfish platters, the perfect pairing to festive bubbles and the ideal antidote to fatty foie gras. Yet the demand to work over the holidays and for long hours has made the métier (job) less and less common.
Alain Grégoire and his son Kévin are the père et fils that are proudly upholding the tradition. Started by Kévin’s great-grandfather at the end of the Second World War, Maison Calambo was helmed by his grand-père, Raymond Ciccone, until 1998. His retirement spurned Alain to help run the historic address (together with his brother-in-law). Though he had never worked in the food service industry, the longtime diver has always had an intimate relationship with the sea. He used to gather sea urchins for the family business on the Côte Bleue, the picturesque turquoise coast north of Marseille.
“I’ve sold everything from cars to vacuum cleaners,” joked the veteran salesman. “Now I peddle seafood.” When Alain’s wife’s brother decided to hang up his oyster knife, 18-year-old Kévin joined his father, learning “the best way” – on the job, with the help of his family. They stock their seafood stand with briny oysters, or huîtres, from nearby Port St. Louis and vertes claires from the north, in Oléron, where the oysters are finished in algae ponds to give them their green color and intriguing flavor. You’ll also find mussels, clams and whelks plus local specialties like violets (an orange-fleshed shellfish whose funky taste is either loved or loathed) and favouilles, the itty-bitty green crabs that make a delectable soup.
Old black-and-white photos on the walls of Maison Calambo show Marseillais circa the 1950s crowding in front of the stand. Now, some customers prefer to slurp their oysters sur place (on site). In response to this changing tide in seafood consumption, the duo added tables in 2017 to create an inviting space for their clients. They expanded the menu with hot dishes, hiring Kévin’s sister, Celia, to help in the kitchen.
In response to this changing tide in seafood consumption, the duo added tables in 2017 to create an inviting space for their clients.
In the small, 18-seat space, diners savor garlicky aioli, tuna tartare and pan-seared fillets of fresh daurade (sea bream). When moules frites (mussels and fries) are on the menu, they are always a hit, especially when they are served in a cream and egg-yolk poulette sauce (poulette means “chick”). While speaking with Alain, the women beside us finished their mussels and were trying to savor every last bit of sauce as best they could – he offered them a spoon, but they opted for more baguette to sop it up in true French fashion.
“You need to be inventive and surprise the client,” explained Alain, who creates recipes for the plat du jour based on the shellfish on hand. On that day it was poêléé de la mer, a seafood stir-fry made with squid, mussels and clams, homemade pistou (a French sauce somewhat similar to pesto), and zucchini, eggplant and onions – since the “ladies like their vegetables,” Alain winked. Cooked in a giant paella pan next to the open front window, the aromatic dish made for great publicity, luring passersby to pop in for lunch or buy containers to bring home.
While the full menu is only served during lunch, customers can order seafood platters at all hours, from breakfast oysters to an apèro of bright-orange sea urchins. All the wine comes from Alain’s winemaker friends, including the popular Domaine de Paternel white and rosé from Cassis. In the summer, Maison Calambo has a terrace on the triangular square in front of the stand, providing a shaded respite from the city’s swelter. And, when we happen to be dining solo, Maison Calambo is an ideal spot: The intimate room and familial welcome makes eating alone less lonely.
Traditionally in France, the écailler’s calendar mirrors the oyster season. They’re open from September to mid-May, with the last platters being assembled for Mother’s Day. Due to their restaurant, Maison Calambo stays open most of the year except for August, the official vacation month of France. They host oursinades – the local, winter seafood festivals of sea urchins (oursins) – and have plans to start serving small plates at night for summer apèros. It seems these shuckers are up for anything.
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