Summer in Provence ushers in a multitude of promises. In Marseille, it means waking to the song of the cicadas, day trips by boat to le Frioul to cool off in the sea and the afternoon rendezvous with friends for an apéro of pastis or rosé on ice. Saturdays bring the bliss of wandering through the markets in search for the perfect melon from Cavaillon, the ciflorette strawberries from Carpentras, or the succulent coeur de boeuf tomato. Perhaps the one market item that signifies the Provençal summer more than anything else is the fleur de courgette (zucchini flower). When this lovely little flower appears, we know it is officially summertime in the South.
This year has been a very hot summer for much of the planet and here in Marseille has been no exception. The intense July heatwave known to us as la canicule has finally subsided. The sky has returned to its typical Cézanne blue and a light breeze from the sea brings needed respite. With the sultriness of summer, our lust for a large meal is decidedly on pause. Instead, light fare and the bevy of local Provençal produce beckons our appetite.
Then it hits us – Le Bon Air, the new food truck at Notre Dame de la Garde. It has been on our list since opening in May 2022 and a trip up the hill for a bite and to see the sun set is the crowning end to any day in Marseille.
When three local brothers, Jon, Tom and Florian Nègre, were approached to open an eatery on the grounds of the basilica, they jumped at the opportunity. Rector Olivier Spinosa and Bursar Sophie Houzel met with the brothers after becoming familiar with their catering company La French Cuisine and it was an immediate match. They agreed on a food truck for Notre Dame de la Garde, and Le Bon Air was born.
Hailing from a long line of Marseillais restauranteurs, Jon, Tom and Florian all share a deep respect for the city, the food traditions of Provençe, a commitment to sourcing from local producers and an eco-responsible approach to business. They had each worked separately in the industry for years, but really wanted to put their individual skills together as a team. Jon serves as the general manager of La French Cuisine, Tom is the chef and Florian is the manager of the food truck, which has a dozen employees. Together, the brothers have created a winning recipe.
Notre Dame de la Garde, known to locals as la Bonne Mère is just that, the “Good Mother.” She is the compass that guides us, resting calmly at the highest point above the noise and the soot of the city, she offers comfort. Even before construction on the basilica began in 1853, this limestone peak served as a beacon over the sea and the city since the Phoceans sailed the Aegean Sea and settled the harbor. The symbolic site was especially important in the last couple of years during the Covid-19 pandemic, when people made a further effort to gather outdoors. We ventured to the hills surrounding her might at sunset. On any given evening, the hilltop is freckled with old friends and new friends who meet to share a bite, a glass of wine and the slow passing of time.
On this visit there are now tables and chairs! We place our order at the counter of the small truck and then it’s time to relax and marvel at our surroundings. Jon likens the ambiance to that of a village square, but one with a 360-degree view of the sea and the city. It simply doesn’t get better.“Paris has the Eiffel Tower. In Marseille, we have Notre Dame de la Garde,” he tells us. “The most beautiful thing here is in the evening, when the terrace is full. When you see all these people and it’s the most beautiful view…It is the greatest satisfaction that we have. That’s what motivates us every day. There is no more noise – you don’t hear the noise of the cars, you don’t hear anything at all. You can only hear the sound of the cicadas, the sound of the air and the light, the bell tower of Notre Dame and the people talking, the children running…it resembles a real village square.”
The Menu at Le Bon Air consists of classic southern Mediterranean fare. Burrata with cherry tomatoes and pesto, frito misto with market fresh legumes and aioli, focaccia with stracciatella, tomato confit and rocket, and my (and Jon’s) personal favorite, zucchini flower beignet stuffed with ricotta and herbs. The dishes are plentiful and even though we ordered almost everything on the menu, the two of us just about cleaned our plates because it was all so good. There are many other choices to satisfy any craving: planches of charcuterie and fromage, the Marseillais panisse (a chickpea French fry), and salade de poulpe.
Sourcing local and top quality products is of the highest importance to the brothers Négre. When speaking with Jon about their menu, he said that they were inspired by the DNA of the Marseillais. He relayed a favorite childhood memory of the taste of tomatoes from his grandfather’s garden. He spoke passionately about the quality of products available here in the South and that they wanted to emphasize this advantage with their menu. When sourcing for local producers, Rector Spinosa mentioned using monastic products like olive oil and syrups. Upon tasting, they immediately knew that the flavors were true and authentic. Monastic items on the menu include a delicious terrine de campagne from Abbaye Notre-Dame-de-Grâce de Bricquebec, olive oil from Notre-Dame de Graces de Cotignac, and a selection of Via Caritatis wines from Abbaye du Barroux.
All of the packaging, glass products and utensils at Le Bon Air are recycled and made in Europe. Even the kitchen waste is managed by a private company that does selective waste sorting. Jon admits that this is more expensive, but feels strongly that businesses now have a responsibility to be environmentally conscious, and so they made a commitment to working this way. Preservation of the site is also a priority, and there is no music at the restaurant. Just the sound of the passing gulls and the chatter of happy customers.
Time has quickly escaped us up here on the hill, the sun gets lower in the sky and the shadows are long and cast at our feet. We quibble over who will get the last bite of buratta with pesto. I give in and turn to the view over the sea to the Île de Frioul. A Camargue Cross stationed at the basilica is silhouetted on the horizon. I ask Jon if Le Bon Air will return again next summer and he answers, “I hope so.”
There are some days in Marseille when we feel we are living a permanent vacation. Spending an evening at our beloved La Bonne Mère and enjoying the culinary treats of Le Bon Air is one of those days. Without hesitation, we hope they will return with their truck to the hilltop next summer, but we will certainly return before this one ends.
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