08 Jun Marseille: ‘Garlic, Mint & Sweet Basil’
I’ll be glued to the TV this Saturday as England plays its first football match, against Russia, in the Euro2016 football championships. The game will be in Marseille – one of the most Mediterranean of Mediterranean cities, with an earthiness & grittiness that I love.
I wonder whether the atmosphere in the Velodrome stadium this Saturday will compare to that in the opening scenes of Marseille, Netflix’s French TV series? The series is a heady mix of politics, corruption, gangs, cocaine-snorting, crime & sex, starring Gérard Depardieu as the city’s mayor.
I learnt a lot of what I know about Marseille from my last visit to the city, when we were stranded on the airport runway in a BA plane for more than an hour waiting for take-off. This gave me plenty of time to talk to my neighbour, a local guy, in his 20s, who lived in New York and whose family owned bakeries in the city.
My new friend had been brought up in the 7th district, beneath the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, which stands guard over Marseille, welcoming all those arriving by boat.
The 7th – unlike the 15th or 16th to the north – is a nice neighbourhood, where people wear glitzy clothes & drive expensive cars.
He taught me, among other things, that for the drug trade in any city to flourish, there needs to be a clientele, and that clientele is often rich and young; and that the rich & poor, the ‘respectable’ & ‘criminal’ live together in symbiosis, & nowhere more so than in Marseille.
My visits to Marseille
That time I had stayed in the old port, in the Radisson Blu hotel, across from the mirrored canopy of Foster + Partners’ Vieux Port pavilion. That night we had had one of my best pizza experiences ever at the buzzy Chez Etienne, just off the main shopping street of the Rue de la Republique.
When I first visited Marseille, in 2005, I was travelling with my son from the nearby seaside town of Cassis – an easy day trip from Marseille – to stay with friends in Uzès, in the Gard.
We had time to kill in Marseille, so we went by boat to the nearby island of If, which means ‘yew’ in French. The island is home to the Chateau D’If, the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. For those who love the sea, it’s a brilliant little trip. I took the featured image for this post at the time of our visit, with the Basilica in the background.
My favourite writer: Jean-Claude Izzo
Marseille is one of my favourite Mediterranean cities, along with Naples. It has a multi-cultural vibe that resonates with the history of the Mediterranean, one of the busiest trading regions in the world.
The city is also home to one of my favourite authors: Jean-Claude Izzo. He was born in 1945, the son of a barman from Naples and a seamstress from Spain. He is best known for his neo-noir Marseille trilogy of Total Chaos (Marseilles Trilogy), Chourmo (Marseilles Trilogy) and Solea (Marseilles Trilogy).
With ex-cop Fabio Montale as the protagonist, Izzo’s novels do sensuality-tinged, edgy crime better than any Netflix TV series. His works are peppered with the smells of food, wine and pastis, providing a light relief from the tension of Marseille’s underworld.
Learnings from Garlic, Mint & Sweet Basil
His series of essays in Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil provide a window on Marseille and Mediterranean cuisine, among other topics.
Despite finding happiness in food and wine, Izzo was a pessimist. He writes, in a translation from French by Howard Curtis:
“The future is desperate. But I’m not the one who is desperate, it’s the world… I say we can resist, transform, improve, but basically, we’re stuck. We can’t change anything fundamentally. On the other hand, in the space that we have, we can be happy.”
“… in the space that we have, we can be happy.”
“Marseille is not Provencal, and never has been” … “Marseille is, and always has been, the port of exiles, of Mediterranean exiles, of exiles from our former colonial routes, too. Here, whoever disembarks in the port is inevitably at home”.
“The cuisine of Marseilles has always rested on the art of using fish and vegetables disdained by the local ship-owning upper classes.” It’s a cuisine of bouillabaisse, ratatouille, ravioli in olive puree, calamari in parsley, aioli & fried chickpea cakes.
Garlic & Wine
“The first girl I ever kissed smelled of garlic.” Garlic is part of “our hunger for life. It is garlic alone that opens the doors to all flavours. It knows how to welcome them, That’s what cooking and eating is: a welcome. Lovers, friends, children, grandchildren.
“That’s what cooking and eating is: a welcome. Lovers, friends, children, grandchildren.”
Nothing goes better with garlic than wine, preferably red wine. In particular, Bandol, the local wine made from Mourvedre grapes: “With each mouthful, the garlic and wine together push the outrate to its limits, until the palate can’t take it anymore. Like the intoxication of a first kiss.”
“We love mint for its smell… Breathe in those peppery smells. Then you will discover that there are always 1001 nights to your dreams. And you will cherish mint as the most beautiful of lovers.”
“… mint as the most beautiful of lovers.”
“I grew up with the smell of basil… Good taste and good smells are acquired instinctively and, once you have sniffed basil, it’s something you can’t do without… I don’t know any simpler happiness… Like the pleasure of loving. Have no fear: an excess of basil, like an excess of love, will not damage the heart.”
“An excess of basil, like an excess of love, will not damage the heart.”
“Wherever I go, in any city in the world, the first thing I do is go to the market. To feel the city… Shopping in a market is nothing but the reinvention of the art of living simply, and together.”
“Shopping in a market is nothing but the reinvention of the art of living simply, and together.”
Despite the blackness of Izzo’s subject matter, his writing fills me with a zest for life in all its colours and with all its senses… a perfect mind-set to start on ones travels. I can even smell the port of Marseille now!
Hotels in Marseille
Hotel C2, a luxury hotel and spa set in a 19th century mansion house, opened in 2014, about 0.5km south of the old port.
Mama Shelter, a 2-star hotel designed by Philippe Stark, located in the more trendy & edgy Cour Julien district. This is the district were a DJ friend who studied in Marseille and now lives in Berlin used to hang out.
Where to eat in Marseille
These are all in the 1st district, set back from the old port, to the south.
L’Aromat, a small, gastronomic restaurant. When I ate there at lunchtime, it was full of people doing business, but that did not stop me from having a very enjoyable meal.
Le Grain de Sel, round the corner from L’Aromat, a bistro with original chef’s menu and a good vibe.
Sylvain Depuichaffray, a tea room with salads & sandwiches, but especially famous for its millefeuilles.
The Marseille Tourism office is a good place to start.