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In the hills surrounding Marseille, the sound of cicadas echo during the summer months. This afternoon was no different on the terrace of Le Cigalon, a restaurant named for the tiny creature beloved by many and a symbol of Provence. About an hour by public transportation or 25 minutes by car, and located within the city limits of metropolitan Marseille, the restaurant is perched atop a hill in a small village.

Opened in 1835, the menu and the hillside view from the terrace have drawn both locals and travelers for generations. Some come for the local specialties on the menu and others make the pilgrimage to visit La Treille, the village featured in films by the celebrated French novelist, playwright and filmmaker, Marcel Pagnol. His film, Le Cigalon, a comedy about a restaurant owner who refuses to serve his customers, was filmed in the restaurant. As luck would have it, the terrace and the interior look almost exactly as it did in 1935 when the film was made.

Upon arriving at restaurant Le Cigalon, we are greeted by Pascal Parisse, the owner and chef and a most gracious host. We sit on the large terrace under a grand plane tree, another symbol of France, planted along roadsides on Napoleon’s orders to provide shade for his marching troops. The branches serve as a parasol for guests, providing ample shade and refuge from the hot southern sun. Tables are dappled in sunlight and shadow, and diners sip chilled wine. There are couples who have stopped in for a midday break, a group of young men celebrating a friend’s imminent marriage, and families out for a weekend get-together.

Pascal has a rotating menu with daily specials that today include aubergine farcie (stuffed eggplant), gambas grillées (grilled shrimp), but looking around the tables, it appears that the crowd favorites are les plats Provençaux, the traditional Provençal dishes that are staples on his menu, such as alouettes sans tête, aïoli and pieds et pacquets.

We opt for l’aïoli and the alouettes sans tête. Translated, alouettes sans tête means “larks without heads,” but rest easy, this name only refers to the appearance of the dish – small bundles or paupiettes in a tomato sauce. The paupiettes are made of slices of beef rolled with jambon slices, bread crumbs, garlic, shallots, and parsley, then browned, stewed with olive oil, white wine, butter, carrots, leeks, celery, herbs de Provence and tomatoes. Aïoli, another classic southern dish, is made with a garlic mayonnaise, codfish and vegetables, and is typically served on Fridays.

Chef Pascal was raised in Les Baux-de-Provence, a beautiful village in the Luberon region of Provence. Born into a food-inclined family – his mother, his grandmother and his great-grandmother were all cooks – he is at home in the kitchen. When he was a small boy, he visited Le Cigalon with his grandmother and has fond memories of the terrace under the trees. She liked to come to the restaurant to see Marcel Pagnol play pétanque, a lawn game of throwing metal balls, and to enjoy the guinguette, an open-air dance hall with live music. He remembers that around the age of five, he knew he wanted to be a chef. Sitting with his grandmother, he recalls, he thought to himself: “One day, if I have money, I’m going to buy Le Cigalon.” He did just that in 2010. Now, thirteen years later, he and his wife, Monique, carry on the traditions he so fondly remembers.

After buying the restaurant, Pascal decided to keep the Provençal dishes on the menu that were beloved by customers. One specialty, the pieds et pacquets is from an original recipe from 1896. Made with lamb tripe stuffed with petis salé (pork belly), garlic and parsley, the stuffed tripe is slow cooked for 12 hours, then the lamb’s feet are added and cooked for another 12 hours. Looking around, we can see that many of the diners have made the journey specifically to enjoy this specialty.

We share our plates: l’aïoli, perfect for a summer day, and the alouettes sans tête, savory and filling. We linger, enjoying the view of the hills and the canal below. Many venture to La Treille and the surrounding area to visit relics from Pagnol’s films such as La Fille du Puisatier, Le Rosier de Madame Husson. A small fountain just behind the village church was featured in Manon des Sources. Marcel Pagnol is buried in La Treille cemetery, at the foot of the village.

Once our lunch is complete, we end our meal with a café and a noisette (an espresso with a small splash of steamed milk). Our young waiter brings us our coffee and surprises us with a small glass filled with a honey-colored digestif. We sip and taste a subtle flavor of herbs de Provence (in this recipe, thyme, rosemary, mint, star anise). We learn that Pascal makes the digestif in house, mixing the herbs with sweetened water and then letting it ferment. “The longer the better,” Pascal tells us. This liquid-gold finish to our meal was a highlight and the perfect end to the day.

As the lunch rush winds down, we are pleasantly satiated and happy to have visited Le Cigalon and the village of La Treille. The cicadas continue to sing, the heat of the day reaches its apex, and sitting under the plane tree on this terrace, there is a serenity, a knowledge that the history of this place preserves the calm. Pascal exits the kitchen and sits with us for a moment before helping his staff clear the terrace. He shares a treasured moment from the restaurant: “Early in the morning when I come into work, it’s very quiet and the birds are singing and the light is coming through the trees. It’s my favorite time. I sit and I have my coffee and look at the view.”

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Published on August 11, 2023

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