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Adventures in bouillabaisse (Marseille)

By Ann | December 9, 2010

Port cities are the best, aren’t they? A salty melange of cultures, a proximity to the sea, vigor, diversity, a gritty crackle in the air… I felt it in Marseille, where a thousand years of seafaring has given way to a vibrant food scene that mixes the cuisines of the Mediterranean — among them, North Africa, Italy, and Spain — with the sunny local flavors of Provence. Oh, and fish, of course. Seven mornings a week, fisherman gather at the Vieux Port to hawk their catch.

slithery  suctiony

There were stranger sea creatures like eels and octopus…

yes, I bought one

Pretty shells for tourists (like me) called l’oeil de Sainte Lucie, which are supposed to bring wealth…

mixed catch

And a mixed assortment of small fish that’s sometimes called “bouillabaisse.”

bouillabaisse  bourride

We ate the real deal at the Marseille institution, Chez Fonfon (140 Vallon des Auffres): Bouillabaisse (photo left) and its paler, garlickier, winier cousin, bourride (photo left). Both are served in two parts, first as a soup, with croutons that have been spread with aioli or rouille…

bourride (note fish in background)  bouillabaisse with fish

And then with potatoes and fish — at least five kinds, which have been poached in the broth. The fish arrives on a separate platter (you can spy it in the background in the photo left) and you cut up morsels to dunk in the soup. From time to time, our waitress would trundle out a huge tureen of soup and ladle out hot spoonfuls. It was a hearty and decadent meal (46€ for the bouillabaisse, 47€ for the bourride) — and very, very garlicky.


But a girl can’t live on fish soup alone, so I was happy to tuck into Au Falafel (5 rue Lulli), a kosher restaurant serving Israeli specialties. The falafel on the assiette de falafel (12€) could have been a little hotter, but I loved their fresh pita, as well as the creamy humous and crunchy salads garnishing the plate. Plus, their house-made hot sauce created enough fire on its own.

chicken tagine with olives

Wandering around in search of chickpea cakes called panisses (I never did find any), I came across M&G Traîteur (9 rue St Michel), a gem of a restaurant and take-away shop. Their chicken tagine with olives was hauntingly delicious, savory and tart with the faint bitter edge of preserved lemons. Couscous was extra, but it was the most delicate, finely grained semolina I’ve ever eaten (10€ for tagine + couscous).


My friend Jean-Marc Espinasse recommended the wine bar l’Enoteka (28 bd Notre Dame), saying its owner, Nicolas, was “un mec extra!” And you know what? He was right. Nicolas was extremely kind, super knowledgeable about wine, and we spent a lovely evening sampling some excellent vins du coin, accompanied by simple salads and sausage (approx 35€ for two).

dodgy café couscous

I can’t really recommend the couscous I ate in a smoky, dodgy cafe on the spookily deserted Iles Frioul. But at least it was hot and hearty, and at least the cafe held a few other souls — drunk souls, yes, but I wasn’t complaining (8.50€).

tarte aux poire et chocolat

I loved Café Lulli (26 rue Lulli), a charming tearoom with house-baked sweet and savory tarts. One afternoon I drank spiced almond tea called “London Christmas” and read my book. The next, I went back for lunch and sampled all the things I’d seen the day before, like a savory pumpkin quiche and the melting pear-and-chocolate tart in the photo above (approx 27€ for two).

assortiment provencal  daube (mine's better)

But let’s not forget that Marseille is in Provence — and no trip to Provence would be complete without sampling the regional fare. On my quest to follow Marcel Pagnol’s footsteps (more on this soon), we ate at Le Cigalon (9 bd Louis Pasteur, La Trielle), where Pagnol shot the movie of the same name. The restaurant is in La Treille, a teeny village, which, though perched high above the city, is still considered part of Marseille’s 11th arrondissement! Here, we tucked into a Provencal sampler, (clockwise) artichokes barigoule, ratatouille, stuffed mushrooms and a cassoulette of mussels in a saffron cream sauce (photo left). I also enjoyed the beef daube (but I have to say mine is better).

feet and tripe  alouette sans tete

Alas, I couldn’t overcome my fear of offal to sample the region’s beloved winter dish, pieds et paquets (photo left), or “feet and packages.” The “feet” refer to sheep’s hooves while the “packages” are pieces of tripe stuffed with parsley and garlic, the whole stewed together in a tomato sauce. Our hosts reported that the version at Le Cigalon — a house recipe from 1896 — was delicious. Thankfully the similarly gruesome-sounding alouette sans tête (photo right) was not a decapitated songbird, but rather thin slices of beef rolled with a stuffing of bacon, parsley and garlic, and braised in tomato sauce. Served with pasta, it was a Marseillais version of spaghetti and meatballs. An immigrant from Italy? In this port city, anything is possible.

Topics: Dining Out and About, Voyages | 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “Adventures in bouillabaisse (Marseille)”

  1. Kristin Says:
    December 9th, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Ann: Smitten! Smitten by your words and your wanderings through this fascinating city of villages. What tasty suggestions and discoveries (and I’m with you: no hooves or heads please!). Merci, merci! Marseille rocks! (off to find my book about M.F.K. Fisher’s time there… “A Considerable Town”, that’s it…

  2. Sweet Freak Says:
    December 9th, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    Are you kidding me?? I was salavating at the bouillabaisse, but then you went on to torture me with the tagine, pumpkin quiche (!!) and warm, melty pear and chocolate tart?? Too cruel, Ann, too cruel…

  3. Voie de Vie Says:
    December 9th, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    OMG, I can’t get there quick enough! And this was in winter? I wonder how much more awesome the plats would be in summer?

    Thanks for that mouth-watering stroll!

  4. Bob Says:
    December 10th, 2010 at 7:01 am

    Wow! I never saw food like that when I was in Marseille wandering about on my own! Your photos are mouth-wateringly delicious! We have to go back! Did anyone try the three- (or was it five-)tiered raw fish specialty of creepy crawlies on ice?

  5. CK Says:
    December 10th, 2010 at 7:57 am

    Cafe Lulli even merited a return trip with my consulate colleagues; The plat du jour changes daily, and yesterday it was a fabulous chicken stew with polenta. For dessert: “un cookies,” a veritable chocolate chip wonder. This is a perfect lunch spot.

  6. Michel Says:
    December 10th, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    I loved my lunch at Chez Fonfon and will be returning soon. There is nothing (almost) more traditionally old Provencal than Pieds et Paquet and you have to try it at least one time.

  7. Ann Says:
    December 11th, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Merci, Kristin! It was a wonderful trip, made even more wonderful by Jean-Marc’s suggestions. Next time, I hope we can visit and share a bouillabaisse together.

    Sweet Freak — See? France doesn’t you to leave. Marseille is calling! And I didn’t even get into the 13 Provençal Christmas desserts…

    Voie de Vie — They assure me that pieds et paquets is a winter dish, for those who are as squeamish as myself. But I long to go back in the summer to hike and breathe in the herb-scented air.

    Dad — No, no one indulged plateau de fruits de mer this time. We’re waiting for your report! ;)

    CK — Yes, I forgot to mention Cafe Lulli has a plat du jour and the tarts change daily. Also, their omelettes looked toothsome.

    Michel — Your post on Chowhound first inspired our visit to Chez Fonfon. I would have tried a bite of pieds et paquets, but wasn’t in a position to ask and didn’t feel up to tackling a whole meal of it. But I vow to sample it one day!

  8. Camille Says:
    December 12th, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    That falafel plate looks so colorful and healthy! (Lots of colors = healthy in my book.) And I love the sound of the “alouette.”

  9. David McGrievey Says:
    December 15th, 2010 at 8:36 am

    You have managed to whet my appetite at every port, eels and octopus are not unfamiliar, my boyfriend is Italian.
    I challenge you to present a dish I would not try, let alone savor. You are a chef, I am your willing victim.
    X David, NYC

  10. Ann Says:
    December 16th, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Camille — Oh, yes! Colorful DEFINITELY equals healthy. Especially when we’re talking about a big fruit tart. :)

    David — You are braver than I! I think you need to visit Marseille so you can report back on the pieds et paquets.

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