Memorably delicious food usually comes in the form of a single item, and not necessarily a sit-down meal. An experience of heightened senses, eating a favorite food is above all an awareness of first seeing, smelling, or touching what we are about to put in our mouths. From these signs, we can already guess that it will be wonderful. As important is the scene where this chosen food is made and eaten, especially in a funky town like Marseille. If the ambiance is dynamic and interesting, it becomes part of the eating experience – so much so, that take-out or eating our find at home, we instinctively know, could change the taste. 2022 is the first lockdown-free year in Marseille, and we appreciate eating out even more than we did before – the streets, the shops, the cafés or restaurants where we can enjoy a hubbub of other humans talking and eating around us, and where we can rediscover our favorite food.
Cinnamon Roll and Coffee at Bar à Pain
Saturday morning market on Boulevard Longchamp at Place Réformés has a very neighborhood feel, where friends greet each other while shopping for organic fruits and vegetables, roasted farm chicken and potatoes for a lazy weekend dinner, bread, fromage, flowers, plants, and, this month, the sapins de Noël, Christmas trees, mounted on their special log stands. Because I moved up the hill this year and I now go to market at Court Julien, I am free to take my time at the spacious sidewalk café of Bar à Pain, with the poultry and rabbit vendor on one side and, on the other, the stand selling fried sardines and squid in cones to eat while strolling the market. There is no more table service at Bar à Pain, which forces us to stand in the cozy bread line, pick up a few torsades (small local baguettes with olives and herbs), watch the striking bread server who looks like she stepped out of an Almodovar film, and the bakers working the dough and ovens in the back.
I order a café crème and a cinnamon roll at the front window, where lunch is already waiting: pizza squares with thin tomato sauce, some draped with arugula, and several savory vegetarian pies. The server only half-makes my coffee, waiting for me to return from the bread line with my torsades, so she tops it off with hot milk. I take the wooden board holding my coffee and roll, and find a seat outside. It is December, but the weather is sunny, autumn-like, and in the cool air I can smell only coffee and cinnamon. For a minute I wonder if I seek out this roll because it reminds me of the honey buns of my childhood, but then I bite into the cinnamon roll and realize that it is too delicious to need a childhood reference. I peer through my coffee steam at the two Roma women with bloomy skirts conversing at the front of the bakery, the woman at the next table nursing her baby, and across from me at the gentleman gently strumming a classical guitar. Watching shoppers making their way with baskets, backpacks, and strollers full of food, I note how soft the roll is, full of flavor, and not too sweet. Once my bun is eaten, I’m not ashamed to surreptitiously lick the syrupy cinnamon stuck to the muffin paper. I finish my creamy coffee and head off.
Hot Chocolate at Noailles
Down Canébière, the main street of Marseille, and close to the Vieux Port, is a family-owned coffee roaster open since 1927, Torréfaction Noailles. Everyone just calls it Noailles. Intending to buy half a kilo of organic beans, I walk in to enjoy the abundant Christmas display of candies, pain d’épices, ginger cookies, colorful marshmallows, and, of course, the sound and smell of coffee grinding. I exchange with the woman serving me, wondering if she is Michèle, wife of Henri (the fourth-generation Blanc family owner). By chance I remember to ask her about the Italian-style hot chocolate they used to serve. My Marseillaise architect friend who has been drinking this at Noailles since she was a child, described its chocolatey unctuousness, noting sadly, during the pandemic, that they stopped making it. But she’s a believer, and told me to remember to ask about it whenever I passed.
The coffeemaker smiled in response, pointing behind me at the massive, undulating counter, with high stools full of both regulars and groups of shopping friends, creating an animated scene. “Make the madame a chocolat chaud, and I’ll charge her over here,” she nodded to her colleague, commanding with charm, even before I order, as she swept my purchase quickly down to the cash register. I thanked her and collected my bag, turning toward the counter just as her colleague was placing a pretty saucer and cup of chocolate in front of the last seat available, at the counter’s end, affording me full view of the festive displays, customers, and passersby on Canébière. An olive-green, chocolate-covered almond decorated the saucer. The cup of chocolate and ambient aroma of coffee blend together wickedly. It was so thick I could not tell whether I was eating or drinking. The chocolate was smooth, warm, and wonderful, I was happy to be alone so I could pay good attention to every sip. I understood why my friend still seeks out this particular chocolat chaud, and I remembered to text her on my way out to let her know the good news. Later I noted that this cup of chocolate is surprisingly digestible and light, with no subsequent heaviness in the gut, despite its decadent consistency.
Sheep Brousse at Cours Julien’s Farmer’s Market
Every Wednesday morning, I do my shopping for the week up the hill from the Vieux Port at the celebrated Cours Julien farmer’s market (the best-known in Marseille). There I discovered a delicacy – the only way to describe it – that I find nowhere else. At the Fromagerie Coste stand of sheep-milk cheeses and yogurts, they also make brousse – which is not the same as the regional specialty made from goat milk. Goat milk brousse originates from Le Rove and is sold at certain fromageries and at most farmers’ markets in Marseille (except off season, if organic, respecting the goat’s cycle of reproduction). The consistency of goat brousse is something between ricotta and yogurt, and it comes in plastic cones. But it is the sheep-milk brousse that I seek out in particular. It comes in four covered cups held in a green plastic basket. In this form, it travels well, and in summer I sometimes pick up a pack, along with other market food, just before heading to the beach for the morning. The sheep brousse is lighter than the goat version, and in fact does not compare in texture, taste, or method of production. The sheep brousse resembles a flan, like crème-caramel, in terms of its texture. It is firm, held together, and light and smooth instead of creamy. Delightful and addictive, we eat it plain with a spoon, but in fact it is versatile in savory or sweet creations.
Claude Coste, the owner, comes from a family of sheep farmers just north of Aix-en-Provence, and he runs the same farm as his forebears. Sheep-milk brousse is made by very rapidly heating a vat of milk, then pulling down the temperature just as rapidly by placing it in ice water so it sets. Today they use gas burners. But when Claude was a child, they heated the milk in large cast-iron cauldrons over burning wood fires. Claude rarely comes to market himself, as selling their dairy products is his sister’s domain (he explains how she broke her hand recently, exceptionally requiring his presence at market). Usually he stays back on the farm to care for his 200-head herd, and grow barley and forage for their feed. He is proud of the self-sufficiency of his small farm. Rare is the customer who lines up at Coste’s on Wednesday mornings who does not include a pack of brousse in her or his purchases!
– Jenine Abboushi
Poutargue, the “Poor Man’s Caviar”
Poutargue, a.k.a. bottarga, is a Marseille – or more specifically Martigues – specialty enjoyed at apéro. The dried red mullet eggs have a briny, funky flavor that earns their nickname as “poor man’s caviar.” I’ve been intrigued by them since arriving in Marseille, particularly once I learned that the traditional poutarguiers have all since disappeared from the region. Most poutargue sold here is either imported or made with egg sacs that come from across the Mediterranean. Eager to taste them at the source, I visited the last standing calen (ancestral fishing net) in Martigues, the coastal “Venice Provencal” located 25 miles outside of Marseille.
There, second-generation poutarguier Jordan Ortiz mans the calen, catching mullet on their journey between the Mediterranean Sea and the Étang de Berre lagoon. Every thirty minutes throughout the day, the thirty-something Martégal revs up an old Dodge truck motor to raise the nets, then sends rubber-overall-clad fishermen out on a dingy to retrieve the fish. In between rounds, Jordan pulled out a freshly dried poutargue, explaining how the pécou, the smoked fish bit at the end, acts as a traditional handle. He handed me a golden yellow slice, explaining that the burnt orange hue of commercial egg sacs is due to blood from mishandling or old age. This poutargue was melt-in-your-mouth tender, nothing like the older or industrial versions I’ve tried, which are either frozen or coated in flavor-diminishing wax for preservation. Sampling it at the source, in the salty sea air steps from the fish, admittedly elevated the taste. But, when I ate more in my urban apartment, each briny bite brought me back beside the canal.
I had come to the calen to witness an ever-diminishing culinary tradition. Yet, I was particularly struck by the place itself. Cobbled together for over a half a century, the blue and white ramshackle shack was a community center of sorts. Like seagulls lured to fishing boats, retired local men dropped in to buy poutargue or whole fish (daurade, loup) that got caught in the nets. But they were really there to socialize, chatting about local politics, the declining fish stock, or how the OM football club was playing. They played cards between net raising and sipped whiskeys and Coke before lunch. “It’s the best place in Martigues,” shared one guy. I couldn’t agree more.
For many in France and worldwide, the Beaujolais Nouveau (a wine produced by locals in Beaujolais, France, to celebrate the end of the harvest season) is more style than substance, a cheap, cleverly packaged marketing ploy to kick off holiday season. However, if you venture beyond the big kahuna, Georges Deboeuf, you’ll find small-batch winemakers who elevate this young wine to more than mere grape juice. Each third Thursday in November, my friends and I meet up at my bar á vin, Les Buvards, to try them.
By the time we arrived at 8 p.m., owners Fred & Laetitia were in good spirits, well-lubricated by the new vins. We snagged the last free spot outside around a wine barrel. With eight wines on the menu, our quartet was ideal for two rounds of four. After a moment of hesitation (could we sip from the same glass in this Covid-cautious era?), the conviviality of the eve let our guards down and we passed the glasses around. Everyone enjoyed Le Noune’s pepper notes and wrinkled our noses with the nail-polish aroma of Kéké – which Fred had warned was “too volatile this year.” The crowd favorite was Séléné, bursting with raspberries and surprising heft for the short 2-month fabrication process.
We paired the wines with shared plates of house-made pork páté, fatty slices of jamón ibérico, slices of aged comté and sheep cheese, dipping baguette into joues de bœuf (stewed beef cheeks), one of Fred’s cocotte-simmered, comfort classics. Vincent, the owner of Chez Fanny, pumped electronic music from his closed sandwich shop across the street. My friend fished a pack of cigarettes – the former smoker’s treat for special occasions – from her purse. Even when it began to pour, Fred brought out umbrellas to keep the rain from dampening the party spirit.
This 2022 tasting was particularly poignant since my twin sister was visiting. In 1997, as 19-year-old foreign-exchange students, we had met up in Beaujolais to taste the nouveau in its terroir. Giddy for our first foray into wine tasting (illegal at our age in the U.S. but allowed in France), we didn’t realize we needed to rent a car. So, we walked and hitchhiked from vineyard to vineyard in the snow – fueled by the endless tastings. 27 years later, we toasted how lucky we were to share this time-honored tradition again in France. And how much easier it was at a wine bar.
– Alexis Steinman
Veal Milanese from Il Capriolo
If you are lucky enough, your neighborhood haunt just happens to be one of the best spots in town. A veteran of the Marseille restaurant scene, Chef Jérôme Benoit, known locally as JéJé Barbu owns and operates his bistro, Il Capriolo, on the city’s iconic, tree lined Boulevard Longchamp. JéJé’s dishes are refined yet approachable, and he is known for his sauces and combinations of fresh ingredients.
On a particularly grey day, my friend Jois and I decided to get one last outdoor lunch in and we knew what we wanted: the Veal Milanese at Il Capriolo. We were greeted by Julian, ever the gracious host and right hand to JéJé. He sat us at a cozy table in the portico outside the main restaurant where we could watch the neighborhood go by. JéJé’s menu changes on a daily basis and depending on the season will include options such as a velouté of gorgonzola with radicchio, hazelnut and pear, an appetizer of fried hariocots vert, anchois, ricotta, lemon and purple basil, or a main course of large clams, confit cherry tomatoes, tarragon olive oil taggiasca olives, and purslane. Homemade tiramisu with cracked chocolate is a delicious dessert option.
Il Capriolo has been a favorite dining spot since it opened in 2018 precisely because of the variety on the menu. However, one item that is a repeat performer is the Veal Milanese. Julian returned to our table and we ordered un verre de vin blanc, as we do in France, to accompany our lunch. He is not surprised when we order the veal. Served piping hot, covered in grated parmesan, it is melt-in-the-mouth tender with the subtle flavor of lemon, pine nuts, capers, shallots, chives and black pepper. Depending on what is fresh in the market, the dish is also served with various legumes such as artichoke or squash blossoms. Today our veal has zucchini and radicchio. We didn’t hesitate one minute. Our wine glasses clinked as we toasted the day, then we dove into our feast.
Pain au maïs et aux graines de tournesol (cornbread with sunflower seeds) from Pain Pan
One of the many perks of living in France is the boulangerie. The French have long perfected the art of bread making – a visit to most boulangeries is an overwhelming feast for the eyes of shelves with different types of bread such as the classic croissant and baguette. Other staples include pain de campagne, boule de pain, fougasse, pain aux noix, pain aux olives, pain au levain, brioche, and here in the South, gibassier (a breakfast bread with orange blossom water and anise seed).
One such boulangerie in Marseille is Pain Pan. After studying in Paris, Rémi Ceresola and Vincent Biron opened their first store in September 2019. They have been so successful that they now have three locations in the city. They bake up some of the best loaves in town. It is almost impossible to walk by and not succumb to the collective nostalgia of the fresh out-of-the-oven, ever comforting aroma of bread. Their shelves are full of all the classic French breads and the line outside can be long on any given day. Some of their favorite items, like their Kouign-amann (a breakfast treat from Breton, basically a caramelized version of a croissant) can sell out early.
We frequent it weekly for one bread in particular, pain au maïs et aux graines de tournesol (cornbread with sunflower seeds). It is a personal favorite because it is reminiscent of cornbread made in the southern United States. It is a dense loaf bread, and differs from the U.S.’s crumbly, cake-like version. However, the cornbread at Pain Pan does have a delicious savory flavor with a nutty pop from the sunflower seeds. When toasted and served up with salted butter and honey, this bread takes us right back home to a southern breakfast. Maïs? Oui!
Corsican Clementines for Christmas
The splash of bright orange in the market stalls is unmistakable. With holidays upon us, we all have our favorite goodies that symbolize the season and here in France, one of the darlings of the season is the Corsican Clementine.
We can thank a French monk, Father Clément, for the discovery of the fruit. In 1902, he was living in Algeria, and managing the orchards of an orphanage near the city of Oran. He noticed a small tree with fruit that didn’t look like the rest. Upon tasting it, he found it sweet and without seeds. The magical fruit was the result of the natural cross-fertilization of a mandarin tree and an orange tree. Et voilà! The Clementine was born and named after the monk. The plants made their way to Marseille, but it was too cold for them to grow here. In 1925, those trees were moved to Corsica and planted there instead. Due to the terrain, the micro-climate of the island, and assistance from the agricultural research station of San Giuliano, the clementine flourished.
Unlike their sister fruit from Spain and Morocco, the Corsican Clementine is unique in a number of ways. There are two varieties: 80% of Corsican Clementines are Fine de Corse and 20% are Cassen. The season begins in late October and runs until January. In 2007, it was awarded the distinction of PGI, “Protected Geographical Indication,” a label that would guarantee its quality. It also differs in both appearance and flavor from the others. The only clementine grown in France, it is ripened on the tree. Each fruit is cut by hand and brought to market within six days of harvesting. With its leaves still intact, as a sign of freshness, and its bright natural color, it is both sweet and slightly acidic on the palate, due to the Corsican terroir. The skin of the fruit is very thin, making it very easy to peel. Very high in demand, 90% of the fruit is sold only in France, the remaining 10% is exported to Switzerland and Belgium.
Many of us reminisce about our childhood, rummaging through our Christmas stockings, where we could find a sweet clementine. Here in Provence, they are often used in the traditional “les treize desserts,” a dessert originating here in Marseille in the 19th century, comprising 13 different fruits, nuts and sweets representing Jesus and the 12 apostles. Whether we celebrate or not, we all look forward to seeing the Corsican Clementine appear during the winter months, its bright orange color a reminder of the warm Mediterranean sun.
– Annie Etheridge
L’Apres M – Life After McDonalds
Passing behind the counter of McDonald’s, walking freely among the french fry warmer, ice cream machine, employee lockers, the drive-thru window, I felt a little tingly as if I’d just rushed the field at a baseball game. Was I about to be blindsided by a beefy security guard?
Thankfully not. I was here as a guest of Kamel Guemari, a former employee of this McDonald’s who, with a merry band of activists, refused to relinquish their posts after the McDonald’s shutdown permanently more than three years ago. It’s a remarkable tale (listen to the full story here) of repurposing space to serve their community – it is currently operating as a food bank – a marginalized part of the city’s north end, which we heard firsthand as a part of our weeklong culinary trip in Marseille.
As they prepare to open their own restaurant onsite called L’Après M (roughly, “After McDonald’s”) the kitchen was not yet in use. However, outside in the playground area a charcoal grill flamed under a grill loaded with crimson merguez sausages. A picnic table was loaded with fresh rolls, roasted onions and peppers, tubes of harissa and 2-liters of Coca-Cola. Car horns ripped in solidarity as they passed through the roundabout and Kamel shouted greetings into the air. I loaded up a roll, sat in the shade of the slide listening to our hosts laughing and joking in French and Arabic, marveling at this most unlikely accomplishment. At some point, the goons from Hamburger University are bound to show up, but for now, Kamel and his team were in control of the field. I ate my sandwich. It was the happiest of meals.
Editor’s Note: L’Après M has since opened as a restaurant
– Ansel Mullins
Published on December 21, 2022