23/07/17

Back to the Coast

Bouches-du-Rhône

The Tour is over and most of the summer is gone.  Modern Salt is taking a break for a few weeks, and offering another look at Marseille - penultimate stop on the Tour.  The sloping hills of umbrella pines are now black and smoking - this happens almost every summer, but this year is the worst.  It is hard to think of holidays with the flames which have engulfed southern Provence and killed so many in London, the echoing vacuum which is Brexit and the metamorphosis of the US Presidency into a second rate garbage clearance company in New Jersey.  Let us park it for a short while, recharge and return with more determination. Stroll along the sea front, watch the fishing boats go out, let the evening sun warm your northern bones.

In Marseilles they make half the toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillais only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained from books of travel.

- Mark Twain

Ha ha.  We all know about Marseille.  Dangerous, smelly, violent.  For the hapless wholesome American tourist, full of formless Jamesian terrors about Europe, it must still represent everything that is uncertain, unhomogenised and worth going some way to avoid.  It depends what you are looking for.  Neat bourgeois streets and calm?  Wrong place.  Provence Central Casting - lavender fields, battery operated cicadas and tapenade made in Poland?  Wrong again.  (Though you can find that).  Like all the great southern ports, Istanbul, Bari, Genoa, Rome, Toulon, Marseille is filthy, graceful, complex and endlessly fascinating. There is no defence to be mounted for the terrible conditions and unemployment in the cités to the north: that people should live like that in the sixth richest economy in the world is beyond shameful. But we are here as tourists, from countries ill-equipped to point the finger, and denial is as essential as the passport. 

Home, where my thought's escaping ......
Home, where my thought's escaping ......

The heart of Marseille is the sea, which brought the Greeks here to establish Massalia, their first city in France, in 600BCE.  Two hundred years later, at its high point, it was a republic of 6000 inhabitants, one of the major trading ports of the world.  According to legend, the city's founders were from the city of Phocea, and the inhabitants of the Vieux Port are still called phocéens.  

The new museum MUCEM, whose architect, Roland Carta, describes as being made of “stone, water and wind” is built into the 16th century fort which guards the entrance to the harbour.  It houses a fine collection of artefacts from Mediterranean culture, displayed, as they should be, with a complete disregard for national boundaries, which have blighted us since the 19th century.  Thus you can easily see the links between Algeria and Provence, Greece and Malta.  For summer visitors it is blissfully air conditioned, and the café has a stonking view over the port.

When you leave MUCEM you can walk along the sea eastwards, through La Joliette. Cinéastes will recognise the old dock buildings from The French Connection and almost every subsequent film on French gangsters.  Ocean liners have been replaced by ferry boats to Corsica and North Africa, and La Joliette, the area behind the docks, which used to be a midden of dank smelly streets,  has now been cleaned up, old 19th century warehouses  restored around leafy squares of cafes, markets and restaurants.  If you should want a little retreat by the Mediterranean, how much more inspiring than to be part of the suburban spread along the coast, populated by handbag dogs, living examples of How Not to do Plastic Surgery and the Wrong Shoes.

"In football there enters an intermediary, a ball. It is in order to possess it that one is strong" Roland Barthes
"In football there enters an intermediary, a ball. It is in order to possess it that one is strong" Roland Barthes

Away from the centre, take the metro to Rond Point du Prado.  If you arrive mid-morning, you can gather ingredients for a wonderful picnic lunch from the huge street market which goes on for kilometres along the avenue du Prado, and you can eat in the Parc Borély.  Wander post-prandially back to boulevard Michelet, past the home of Olympique Marseille (the aptly named Vélodrome) to le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, one of his finest structures, dedicated to providing decent functional accommodation to poor people.  Whether or not this worked is debateable, but it is now a hotel, so you can experience first hand how it was when civic architects designed from principle.

an interior at l'Unité d'Habitation
an interior at l'Unité d'Habitation

Dans les ancient ouvrages de cuisine provençale, la bouillabaisse (bouï abaisso) est définie comme une "soupe des pêcheurs des calques.."

- L'Inventaire du Patrimoine Culinaire de la France

By now, the sun is waning and thoughts turn to dinner.  Marseille and Bouillabaisse, you can’t have one without the other.

How many crimes are committed in the name of this soup along this coast? You can find good bouillabaisse in Marseille (unless you have been well-guided, avoid the restaurants around the Old Port) but there it comes with the trappings of a bourgeois restaurant. You get dressed up, you are seated, white linen envelops you while the distraction of dodgy money (visible chest hair, too much finger furniture and white loafers with chains) orders the 2012 Antoine Jobard Meursault at the next table.

Bouillabaisse, like most of the other iconic dishes of France - choucroute, cassoulet, piperade, tartiflette, is essentially the dish of working people, in this case fishermen, who sold the best of the catch to earn a living.  It is not the cuisine of Escoffier, it is not reduced sauces and fine wines, it is gutsy, strong and smells wonderful, and it is never the same.  It depends on the fish you catch, the part of the sea you caught them, and the time of year.  You should eat it with your sleeves rolled up, juice dribbling down your chin.

Fishing boats moored at Sourmiou
Fishing boats moored at Sourmiou

Le Château at Sourmiou (the largest of the calanques (fjords)) which run along the coast from Marseille is, I think, the best place to eat bouillabaisse.  It is is a shining example of fifth republic beach architecture, full of sharp edges and salt stained glass. Any minute now M Hulot will totter out. Cooking is done with bottled gas and we sit on plastic chairs on the terrace.

The brother of the restaurant owner got the fish that morning in his little boat, which is moored just down the hill. The soup is extraordinarily rich and unctuous, you eat that first, with the croutons and rouille (which means rust, and refers to the orange colour of the bread based mayonnaise which is spread on the croutons) before the fish. It is so complex in its flavours, you could write a chapter just on that. Ponder the ingredients. 

I cup fresh breadcrumbs (without crusts) ¼ tsp saffron dissolved in 2 tbs of the hot fish soup 2 dried cayenne peppers Large pinch coarse sea salt 3 peeled garlic cloves 1 anglerfish liver, poached for a minute in ladle of the soup, until firm but still pink 1 egg yolk 2 cups olive oil, at room temperature

- Richard Olney – A Provencal Table (1995)

Leave the gems of Burgundy for another time and place  The rosés of Bandol are the best in France, try Château Pibarnon, Domaine Ott, or, the favourite of Richard Olney (the best English language writer on the food of France)  Domaine Tempier.

And watch the sun slide into the oldest sea.

Sunset from Sourmiou
Sunset from Sourmiou

Credits

Name Role
Penny Averill Photos