A TASTE OF MARSEILLE
A brief affair with Bouillabaisse and her little sister Bourride
Traditional seafood dishes with big price tags still appeal to modern tastes. But sometimes a little meander along the coastline for simpler fish just hits the spot.
Marseille was so much more interesting than we’d anticipated. A coastal port city with a slower, relaxed beat, it’s a little gritty, with plenty of ancient history and a charm of its own. A place with Middle Eastern and African elements, a familiarity in its people, and some of its stores selling knock-off football gear and Chinese-made items.
In Paris, the aromas of a patisserie or boulangerie waft around every corner. On foot down Marseille streets, you may smell incense beyond the honey or sage or citron scents of Savon de Marseille artisanal soap shops, and find pavements with discarded junk (mattresses seemed popular). The city centre is walkable, but you do have to dodge the electric scooters for hire as they whiz by.
At the city’s heart is Vieux-Port (old port), traditionally a fishing village. But flashy speed boats now moor alongside the small fishing vessels where deckhands hose off barnacles. The large cruise liners are elsewhere. Vieux-Port’s fancy restaurants were where my eating research started.
One of the city’s top five spots for bouillabaisse, Miramar offers plush velvet chairs, white tablecloths, old-school serveurs and the occasional dish covered by a silver cloche. With price tags to match… The bouillabaisse to share is an eye-watering €79 per person, roughly R1,600 apiece.
So we were grateful to have two meals hosted by a tourism connection, our indoor table overlooking French diners enjoying themselves at portside terrace tables. One man looked as if he meant business, his serviette tucked in a bib around his neck, enjoying bouillabaisse and lobster, followed by a cigar. We happily paid €47 for my son’s spaghetti palourdes, to taste fresh local clams bursting their juices into a white wine sauce with shallots, garlic, olive oil and thyme. Kept warm over a burner, it easily fed two, the herby mix merging in flavour delight.
Sommelier Maxime was entertaining, funny and informative about Marseille’s traditional dish.
“Bouillabaisse has a 2,600-year history dating to the Greeks and northwest Turkey in Phocée,” he explained, with a heavy accent on “fo-cee”. Apparently the site of the first olive trees and grapes, Phocée also produced the first bouillabaisse.
“During the night, the men fish. During the day, the women sell the fish. But mainly they sell the good fish like sea bream. Small ugly fish, the little red rockfish, were ground up into fish soup,” he continued. The poisson de roche includes rascasse, de vive, conger and galinette. Today, Miramar also adds monkfish or John Dory. The six fish are cooked into a thick soup, using seawater and saffron.
A first, then second course
The first course is the soup, served with baguette croutons. Rub a garlic clove across a crouton, smear on creamy, garlicky rouille mayonnaise (the French word for “rust”), and enjoy a spoonful of robust tomato and saffron-flavoured bouillabaisse soup. Then comes round two. The soup is sent out again, containing potato, a piece of each fish, and a small mud crab. Maxime’s suggested dry rosé from Bandol matched perfectly.
I’ve eaten bouillabaisse in Provence before; it’s one of those dishes where the strong tomato-saffron flavour builds up, so probably isn’t something you’d order often. Miramar also treated us to tasty chef titbits, including a delicate millefeuille of thin crustless bread sandwiching smoked salmon. To be honest, our table loved the palourdes more — those clean Provence herbs and local clams had the edge.
Maxime was working hard in 35-degree heat, and I asked where the Marseillaise go for simple fish and chips with a view of Marseille’s coastline. What was his opinion of Les Goudes? “No, don’t go there, it’s touristic,” he scoffed. He suggested the port of Niolon instead. “We are the biggest buyers of white fish in the region, but this year …. It’s been really difficult because of the heat. We have fisher families, our own boats…”
“My family, they are having a fish restaurant.” I perked up, and asked if Maxime could assist with a reservation. “I will call my mother! 12.30?” he grinned. Sadly, we never made it. France being France, Marseille’s Train de la Côte bleue line had a strike the next day.
Taking a chance on Les Goudes
So we took a chance, travelling in the opposite direction, towards Calanques National Park. A metro and two buses later, we wandered into the holiday village Les Goudes. I’d heard this fishing town is popular, but on a Monday at midday, its winding streets were empty.
Residential parts of this nature reserve flanked by limestone outcrops reminded us of Kalk Bay or Fish Hoek. The sea looked a bit like Langebaan, with tranquil azure waters. But warmer, with less swell.
I tried to decipher some French menu offerings, wincing at the crazy prices of the only two restaurants in Les Goudes open. Stepping inside L’Esplaï du Grand Bar des Goudes with its 100-year-old history and sea views, I asked politely in basic French if the manager spoke any English. He didn’t. What a relief when he dispatched a French-Turkish waiter to answer my questions.
Mustafa was a treat, showing off fresh sea bass that customers order whole, then share between two or three, at €9 per 100g portion. “We sell bouillabaisse at Les Goudes, of course. People love it, but it’s for a minimum of two. Has to be reserved in advance, as we prepare the fish, marinade it with saffron, white wine…”
I learnt that bourride, at €39, is the “little sister” of bouillabaisse, and what Grand Bar guests request often. This soup from fish and vegetables is a Provençal favourite, served with olive oil and aioli. “Our bourride is considered our speciality, better than our bouillabaisse, according to Michelin,” Mustafa declared.
On the subject, a local contact recommended a Provençal street food version in Marseille — a bouillabaisse sandwich.
“I know it sounds surprising and a little cheap, but it’s definitely worth a trip. It’s called Pain À Lail and run by owners Hervé and Linda,” she’d explained. “The baguette and garnishes are homemade, it’s different and has become a classic address in Marseille. It’s close to the old port if you want to check it out.” If we’d had more time, we would have…
In search of lunch
An hour or so later, we returned to Les Goudes in search of lunch, hungry after a stroll and cooling swim in a nearby bay, after bumping into two Zimbabwe/South African families renting a beach house. Rugby World Cup opinions were exchanged, and an oval ball was tossed back and forth in the shallows.
We ordered drinks at the restaurant’s bar tables opposite, contemplating whether we’d be able to navigate any fishy options on the Grand Bar des Goudes menu for less than €26 or €35 a dish.
Fortunately, my new waiter friend came to our rescue. It turned out that the bar offers tapas portions of the restaurant’s fishy specialities, as it shares the same kitchen. Mustafa brought small plates of mussels in garlic/parsley butter. Chickpea flour panisse “fries” that we dipped into aioli. And a pool of garlic, herby broth surrounding delightful razor clams. In tapas form it was way cheaper, made in the same kitchen, and just the thing with a cold beer on a hot French day. DM
Miramar | 12 Quai du Port, Marseille | Tel +33-491914109. lemiramar.fr
L’Esplaï du Grand Bar des Goudes | 29 Rue Desirée Pelaprat, Les Goudes, Marseille | Closed on Tuesday. Tapas bar Grand Bar des Goudes directly opposite | Tel +33-491734369. grandbardesgoudes.fr
Pain À l’ail | 5 Rue de la Tour, Marseille | Street food | Monday to Saturday. | https://www.instagram.com/pain.a.lail/