Shared Plates

17 April, 2021

Chez Jacques & Fils in Marseille (all photos courtesy Alexis Steinman)

Chez Jacques & Fils in Mar­seille (all pho­tos cour­tesy Alex­is Steinman)

Alexis Steinman

On the Rue d’Aubagne, a nar­row slop­ing street crammed with Lebanese pita, Sene­galese pas­tels, and oth­er food-cen­tric shops, sits one of Mar­seille’s last-stand­ing lai­ter­ies. You can’t enter Chez Jacques & Fils (the tiny space can only fit cool­ers), so you order your dairy prod­ucts at the counter. Here, I buy my week­ly bot­tle of lait cru (raw milk), fresh from their herd of cows in the Ardéche. In front of me, an old­er Alger­ian woman clad in a mauve jella­ba and match­ing head­scarf buys a bot­tle of lait fer­men­té to mark the end of Ramadan’s dai­ly fast. When I ask the Como­ri­an man behind me what he does with his lait cail­lé, he shares how he mix­es the cur­dled milk with rice for a clas­sic dessert, maélé na dzy­wa.  

Though just three meters wide, this cor­ner stand gives a glimpse into what makes this 240 square km city tick.  Mar­seille’s sim­ple authen­tic­i­ty does­n’t fuss with win­dow dress­ing. Our mul­ti­cul­tur­al make­up spans from the Moroc­can Jews near the Grand Syn­a­gogue on the Rue Bre­teuil to the Beau­mont quarti­er Arme­ni­ans whose ances­tors fled their coun­try’s geno­cide. Open for half a cen­tu­ry, Chez Jacques’s oft-busy counter also sig­ni­fies how her­itage trumps trends in this 2,600-year-old city. 

Mar­seille can be chal­leng­ing to grasp. Nov­el­ist Blaise Cen­dars writes how “it is not a city of sites,” like Rome, Madrid, or oth­er clas­sic Euro­pean metrop­o­lis­es, but “a site in itself.” You get to know the city by get­ting in the thick of it: strolling its wind­ing streets, wan­der­ing through its mar­kets, and inter­act­ing with its peo­ple. Most impor­tant­ly, you need to eat — for it is through the stom­ach and at the table that you’ll find Mar­seille’s soul. 

A Thou­sand and One Flavors 

The Noailles quarter of Marseille.

The Noailles quar­ter of Marseille.

Accord­ing to the Agence d’Ur­ban­isme d’Ag­gloméra­tion de Mar­seille, no oth­er Mediter­ranean port has wel­comed migra­to­ry waves for as long as Mar­seille. Since 600 B.C., ships stocked with cof­fee beans from Egypt and almonds from North Africa have also trans­port­ed peo­ple, each one with recipes and tra­di­tions from their home­land to toss into the diverse salma­gun­di of Mar­seille cui­sine. The term “melt­ing pot” is oft used when refer­ring to Mar­seille’s cos­mopoli­tan pop­u­la­tion. That rings true when con­sid­er­ing the lack of homoge­nous eth­nic neigh­bor­hoods like New York’s Chi­na­town or Berlin’s Lit­tle Istan­bul. Yet melt­ing implies assim­i­la­tion, where cul­tures blend togeth­er and con­se­quent­ly become watered down into a more uni­form whole.

 
A Mul­ti­cul­tur­al Mille­feuilles City

A more apt metaphor rather than melt­ing pot would be mille­feuilles, the French pâtis­serie in which sheets (feuilles) of puff pas­try are lay­ered with pas­try cream. This anal­o­gy comes from his­to­ri­an Jean-Louis Planche, who writes of how the Mar­seil­lais “rub shoul­ders with their mul­ti­cul­tur­al neigh­bors while keep­ing true to their reli­gion, cul­ture, and tra­di­tion.” Rather than get­ting dilut­ed in the cos­mopoli­tan stew, the lay­ers retain their form. Here, Chi­nese badi­ane, star anise, fla­vors our home­grown tip­ple, pastis. Paniss­es, the chick­pea frit­ters munched at apéro, descends from the fari­nan­ta fried by Lig­uri­an sailors in the 18th cen­tu­ry. Cor­si­can pork liv­er figatel­li are is the star of win­ter bar­be­cues — which are some­times held indoors, true to our rebel­lious spir­it, like when my friend grills up the jet-black sausages in her bour­geois apart­men­t’s fireplace. 

Au Grand-Antoine, the father and son traiteur in Noailles.

Au Grand-Antoine, the father and son trai­teur in Noailles.

Wit­ness this in the neigh­bor­hood of Noailles, nick­named the “bel­ly of Mar­seille” for both its cen­tral loca­tion and mouth­wa­ter­ing offer­ings of food pur­vey­ors. Across from the col­or­ful fruit and veg­gie veg­etable stands at the out­door mar­ket sits Au Grand Saint-Antoine. Open since 1922, and now run by father/son duo Yves and Emmanuel Bassens, their store­front is stacked with sausages, chori­zo, and cured pork loin — the porcine plea­sures you’d find at tra­di­tion­al char­cutiers across France. Yet, this one sits is locat­ed just steps away from halal butchers. 

Same méti­er, dif­fer­ent rules, co-exist­ing on the same square. Proud pur­vey­ors of char­cu­terie made in their ate­lier upstairs, the Bassens are equal­ly pas­sion­ate about Noailles. Yves is the pres­i­dent of the neigh­bor­hood asso­ci­a­tion. Emmanuel makes nems every Wednes­day, using a recipe they learned from a local Viet­namese woman. Au Grand Saint-Antoine used to have a tile sign out front: a pair of pigs besides a nun — a nod to the Capuchin con­vent that once stood near­by. The his­tor­i­cal sig­nage was tak­en down last year dur­ing a remod­el, sad­ly, but its removal showed respect for Noailles’ cur­rent pork-free pop­u­la­tion.  
 
For a fron­trow seat in the crowds of rub­bing shoul­ders cit­ed by Jean-Louis Planche, head to the near­by Rue Longue des Capucins. Per­fumed with the mouth­wa­ter­ing entic­ing smoke from rotis­serie chick­ens and the homey scent of Alger­ian har­cha (bread) siz­zling on a cast iron grill, the skin­ny street hums with locals shop­ping for their home kitchens. A Moroc­can woman loads baghrir (crepes dot­ted with tiny holes) into her cart across from a Cam­bo­di­an man buy­ing fresh mint from the herb sell­er. At Sal­adin Épices du Monde, a dashi­ki-clad Sene­galese buys a can of Daka­tine for his chick­en mafé. The same peanut but­ter fla­vors the toma­to-based rougail for a cus­tomer from the Île de Réu­nion. One ingre­di­ent is bought side by side, for each cul­ture’s kitchen. 

Yves and Emmanuel Bassens, Au Grand Sainte Antoine.

Yves and Emmanuel Bassens, Au Grand Sainte Antoine.

 
A Tunisian table for all 

 

A block away, a con­stant line invari­ably snakes curves out from the door of Chez Yas­sine. Maghre­bis, Mar­seil­lais of every ori­gin, and tourists come to this Tunisian snack for its typ­i­cal plates: shat­ter­ing­ly crispy briks, pas­ta topped with seafood, fiery-red links of grilled mer­guez. Each time I tuck into Chez Yas­sine, my mind wan­ders back to my mem­o­rable first visit. 

It was the Sun­day after I moved to Mar­seille. Inside, din­ers were packed like sar­dines at the close-knit tables. “Are you on your own?” asked the own­er. “Yes,” I replied sheep­ish­ly, hav­ing just learned that solo din­ing was rare in France — par­tic­u­lar­ly for women. He walked me to the only table of ladies and spoke to them in Ara­bic. One of the three women moved her purse from the emp­ty chair, smiled, and ges­tured for me to sit. 

The table heaved with ojja, eggs sim­mered in a pep­per sauce, and kefte­ji, ten­der grilled veg­eta­bles topped with haris­sa. “What should I order?” I asked, hop­ing to break the ice by talk­ing about food. “Noth­ing,” insist­ed the woman across from me. “We’ve got way too much food. You need to help.” The ladies showed me how to scoop up the veg­eta­bles with the fries and tear up baguette into the leblebi, chick­pea soup, until the broth turns into a thick porridge. 

Chez Yassine.

Chez Yas­sine.

 
Between bites, the friends (a Moroc­can, an Alger­ian, and a Tunisian) and I chat­ted about their cul­tures’ cuisines. Valérie praised Moroc­can pâtis­serie ori­en­tales for being less syrupy than oth­er Maghre­bi sweets. They all agreed stick-to-your-ribs Tunisian fare was the best anti­dote after their night of danc­ing until dawn. Our con­ver­sa­tion flowed so eas­i­ly I for­got the women had been strangers before­hand. By the sim­ple act of shar­ing plates, the for­eign became the familiar. 

Pure and sim­ple  

A meal at Chez Yas­sine is à la bonne fran­quette, no-fuss cook­ing that is as embed­ded in Mar­seille’s din­ing DNA as the bou­chon is to Lyon. Yes, some of our tables are adorned with Miche­lin stars and we have a new crop of trendy, loca­vore chefs. But it’s the sim­ple, clas­sic spots that are more in tune with this his­toric, work­ing-class city. 

Pâtisserie Journo.

Pâtis­serie Journo.

In Le Panier at Chez Eti­enne, a wood-fired pizze­ria start­ed by a Sicil­ian immi­grant in 1947, the walls are lined with fad­ed pho­tos of smil­ing reg­u­lars: for­mer may­ors, mafiosi, and a wait­ress who has worked there for 54 years. Sip­ping a pastis besides weath­ered maps and wood­en boats at Bar la Car­avelle on the Vieux-Port, you can imag­ine the 1930s sailors who came here to drink their hard­ships away. The salt air at the Plage de Cata­lan has pre­served the 70-year-old Chez Michel, where my friend’s mom cel­e­brat­ed her first and for­ti­eth wed­ding anniver­saries. These her­itage places pre­serve the past — and feel utter­ly at home in the present. 

Oth­er address­es are a far cry from the Insta­gram-abil­i­ty that has dic­tat­ed design for the past years. The vrai Mar­seil­lais aren’t both­ered by appear­ances. It’s what’s on the plate that counts. And so in the heart of the city, Pâtis­serie Journo’s non­de­script store­front is easy to miss. Walk inside, and a wall of shelves is lined with bak­ing sheets topped with chewy almond mac­aron, sticky youy­ou donuts, and pow­dered cornes de gazelles still warm from the oven. Roger Journo opened this sliv­er of a shop in 1971 after leav­ing his home­land, Tunisia, post-inde­pen­dence. The 85-year-old’s faith is reflect­ed in the Hebrew writ­ing on the wall. But, in true Mar­seille fash­ion, his pâtis­series ori­en­tales are not lim­it­ed to one’s reli­gious per­sua­sion, and are beloved by all.
 

Any way you slice it

Con­trary to what the tourist office likes to tout, Mar­seille’s most pop­u­lar dish is not bouil­l­abaisse — the fish stew that has been mar­ket­ed to myth­i­cal sta­tus. Piz­za is our dai­ly bread, with the city rival­ing more pizze­rias per cap­i­tal than NYC. Brought by Neapoli­tan work­ers in the 1860s, piz­za con­sump­tion real­ly revved up here in 1964 with the camions de piz­za — the first food trucks of France. The clas­sic order is the moit moit: half anchovies, for briny Mediter­ranean fla­vor, and half Emmen­thal cheese to remind you that you’re in France, not Italy. Chori­zo or piz­za arme­ni­enne, a meaty mess that resem­bles the Armen­ian lah­ma­jun, are also favorites. 

This plat pop­u­laire is devoured in every cor­ner of the city: on the steps of the Velo­drome after an OM game, on the beach for a con­vivial apéro amongst friends, and in a bour­geois home in the 8ème for a Sun­day sup­per with fam­i­ly. Afford­able, portable, and an effort­less way to get din­ner on the table, piz­za tran­scends class, age, and race. At home, a Mala­gache can make her home­land’s romaza­va stew. When she picks up a wood-fired piz­za from her neigh­bor­hood truck, she is proud­ly Marseillaise. 

Food writ­ing gets it right 

When Mar­seille has appeared in print, its unique­ness has been viewed neg­a­tive­ly and its dis­cour­ag­ing side — drugs, crime, pover­ty — gets more cov­er­age. Food writ­ers and chefs regard the city in a dif­fer­ent fash­ion. They see Mar­seille’s sin­gu­lar­i­ty as seduc­tive rather than strange, its Mediter­ranean swag­ger a wel­come change from France’s uptight men­tal­i­ty. In their eyes, the city’s mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is a mul­ti-course feast, not an affront to French iden­ti­ty.  In 1953, Julia Child extolled the city’s “rich broth of vig­or­ous, emo­tion­al, unin­hib­it­ed life” in let­ters to her Parisian friends who had scoffed at her move to Mar­seille. In the 2007 episode of Parts Unknown, Antho­ny Bour­dain pro­claims Mar­seille his favorite French city, his enthu­si­asm chang­ing the mind of his Antibes-born friend, chef Eric Ripert, who grew up dis­dain­ing his coastal neighbor. 

In A Con­sid­er­able Town, MFK Fish­er mar­vels at the “mys­te­ri­ous salti­ness” that gives Mar­seille’s food a “zest she has not seen any­where else.” The Amer­i­can essay­ist was inspired to write her 1950s mem­oir about her adopt­ed home as a rebut­tal to the tired tropes (“filthy and dan­ger­ous”) that pre­vi­ous writ­ers used repet­i­tive­ly. Instead, Fish­er finds a French word, inso­lite, to describe Mar­seille. Loose­ly trans­lat­ed as “atyp­i­cal” and “inde­fin­able”, the city’s inso­lite nature is what makes it so intrigu­ing. Mar­seille is not, nor does not it want to be, eas­i­ly under­stood, but we can get to know her bet­ter at the table. 

Alex­is Recommends:

  • Au Grand Saint-Antoine 11 Rue du Marché des Capucins +33 4 91 54 04 95

  • Bar la Car­avelle 34 Quai du Port +33 4 91 90 36 64

  • Chez Yas­sine 8 Rue d’Aubagne +33 9 80 83 39 13

  • Chez Jacques & Fils 14 Rue d’Aubagne +33 6 27 15 62 92

  • Chez Eti­enne 43 Rue Lorette +33 6 16 39 78 73

  • Chez Michel 6 Rue des Cata­lans +33 4 91 52 30 63

  • Pâtis­serie Journo 28 Rue Pavil­lon +33 4 91 33 65 20

  • Sal­adin Épices du Monde 10 Rue Longue des Capucins +33 4 91 33 22 76

Algerian cuisineBlaise CendarsMaghrebiNoailles quarterTunisian cuisine

Alexis Steinman is a food and travel writer in Marseille. Having called LA, NYC, Seattle, Paris, Marrakech, and, now Marseille, home, this storyteller easily immerses into new cultures. Whether scrubbing in sulfur pools on the Sicilian island of Stromboli, sipping Bulls Blood wine in Hungarian caves, or dunking in the Atlantic Ocean on New Year's Day, her experiences infuse her writing with a keen sense of place. Wherever this peripatetic writer wanders, good eats and drink are sure to be nearby.

guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments