Six types of whole fish are marinated in a blend of white wine, olive oil and garlic. The stock is rich with fennel, tomatoes, spices and fish odds-and-ends and strained before serving.
MARSEILLES, France’s second largest city, has been trying to shake off its shady reputation for decades. The gritty city never acquired the moneyed glitz of the rest of the Cote d’Azur, but over the past few years the tide has truly turned. Ships are pulling into the huge cruise terminal again, tourism has risen 15 per cent and ambitious buildings designed by some of the world’s star architects are springing up everywhere.
The foodie highlight of this year is Marseilles Gastronomy 2019, a blowout of 1000 events highlighting local produce, the record-breaking number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the region and farm to fork markets. The city’s culinary gift to the world is bouillabaisse, the fish stew/soup developed over the centuries by local fisherman who originally used seafood they couldn’t sell. The Vieux Port area is riddled with restaurants offering “authentic” bouillabaisse in several languages, but there are a lot of travesties and second-rate versions.
On a tip from a friend, I headed slightly out of town to Goudes, a tiny fishing village that is home to L’Espai du Grand Bar des Goudes. The chef, Christophe Thullier, prides himself on his classic version of bouillabaisse. Six types of whole fish are marinated in a blend of white wine, olive oil and garlic. The stock is rich with fennel, tomatoes, spices and fish odds-and-ends and strained before serving. The rouille, the traditional chilli-spiked sauce that accompanies bouillabaisse, and the view from the terrace are the stuff of south of France fantasies.
But the man who is the flag bearer and unofficial ambassador for bouillabaisse is Gerald Passedat, the chef/owner of the Michelin 3 star restaurant and boutique hotel, Le Petit Nice. Dining here is expensive and should be booked well in advance. But Passedat’s My Bouille Baisse, as he calls his refined, deconstructed version, is as much a performance as a meal. The raw shellfish starter is followed by fish fillets in saffron broth and a dense soup with several types of fish and tiny crabs. The traditional Michelin advice – worth the trip – really rings true at Le Petit Nice.
Other top choices for anyone in search of a great bouillabaisse include Le Miramar. The restaurant was a founder member of the Charte de la Bouillabaisse, a group of 11 local restaurateurs who codified the ingredients and techniques that constitute a true bouillabaisse in the 1980s. Wine from Cassis is a speciality here because the area overlooks the rocky inlets that supply the best fish for the storied dish.
Chez Fonfon is located in the 7th quartier, a couple of kilometres from the main waterfront. The restaurant has been serving bouillabaisse for over 50 years and has the recipe down pat. For those who love a modern twist, L’Aromat is a chic bistro offering a bouillabaisse burger – fish fillet, tomato and rouille on focaccia with a shot of rich fish soup on the side.
Cultural developments have also revived the tourist fortunes of Marseilles. Fort St Jean, built between the 14th and 17th centuries, has been revamped as a public space and a climb to the top of the battlements yields panoramic views of the Mediterranean and the cityscape. A footbridge connects the fort to MuCEM, a state-of-the-art museum outlining the history of Marseilles and its trading links back to the ancient Greeks who founded the city as Massilia. Even if you don’t have time for the 21 other museums in Marseilles, a visit to this futuristic cube-like building colloquially known as J-4 shouldn’t be missed.
Cite Radieuse was designed by Le Corbusier and the Brutalist complex achieved World Heritage status in 2016. An apartment building in the main, several areas are open to architecture buffs, including a rooftop art gallery during the summer months, a bookshop and the Hotel Corbusier, where you can sip a sundowner or local beer at the Le Ventre de l’Architecte restaurant and bar.
The Vieux Port really is old, dating back more than 2500 years in some form or other. Like the Plaka in Athens, it is an over-touristy but must-visit part of town. The narrow streets are full of shops selling artisanal crafts, olive oils, Provencal soaps and lotions, and restaurants. We stayed at the Hotel Sofitel which is reasonably priced for the standard of comfort and offers the best views of the Vieux Port – no argument.
Hip young chefs have flocked to the city over the past decade. La Boite a Sardine is as notable for its contemporary kitsch nautical decor and laidback tattooed staff as it is for its modern take on Provencal seafood. Fresh-as oysters, sea urchins, calamari and prawns dunked in aioli are hard-to-resist. A two-course lunch with a glass of local wine will set you back about $75 for two.
Artists and musicians have also flocked to Marseilles. There’s even a local version of rap and hip-hop. Don’t fancy that? Then take a deep dive into nostalgia at La Caravelle in the Hotel Belle Vue. Founded as a jazz club in the 1930s, a trio of suave 70-something musicians on the saxophone, piano and xylophone keep up the pre-World War II vibe and the tiny outdoor terrace overlooks the Vieux Port.
Like Sydney, Marseilles offers ferry trips to nearby islands in the Frioul Archipelago. One of which is, where you can visit the ruins of a 16th century prison which inspired the Aexandre Dumas novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. That’s when you realise that you have come to the “right” end of the French Riviera.