As Paris and France reopen (as of yesterday, most places are now open at full capacity…), restaurants and café terraces have become hotspots in the city, a word which has taken on a somewhat different meaning since the pandemic. Most are now packed, filling up in the afternoons and evenings, and staying that way late into the night as Parisians celebrate summer. The best part of the pandemic for me was that it was okay not to stay out late. When I was a younger lad, I worked evenings, so am no stranger to late nights. But these days, I look forward to the moment where I get to be horizontal in my bed, surrounded by comfy pillows and lovingly-worn (i.e.; vintage) French linen sheets. I get most of my pleasure these days shopping the markets and doing other daytime activities. And I’m fine being in bed by 11pm, skipping the two hour goodbyes.
We haven’t made any summer plans since, 1) The pandemic upended a lot of things and I haven’t had le courage to do a whole lof of planning, and 2) I haven’t had the courage to do all the planning associated with taking time off and going away. Most years I take some or all of August off, which in the past has concerned readers and others, especially people in the States who don’t understand that summer vacation is sacred in France and that yes, people take a break, and leave their computers behind for a spell. So if you don’t see me later in the summer, no need to send a message asking where I am. Hopefully I’ll be at the beach.
The French plan their vacations well in advance, which is necessary since everyone is going away at the same time, en masse, and a TGV train I look a few days ago, which was in June, was completely packed. So one needs to get a summer rental lined up, buy train tickets, rent a car, and have other travel plans set in place well before. People are so fanatical about les vacanes that last year in March 2020, when we were in strict confinement and tv news showed people in hospitals beds struggling on breathing tubes (although not to the extent the U.S. news did…) and TGV trains being converted into medical evacuation units, an important talking point on French television was; Would we be able to have our summer vacations?
In France, there are juillettists or juilletists, and aoûtiens, or “People who go on vacation in July” vs. “People who go on vacation in August.” (You have to love a language that has such specific words, and two different spellings for one of them.) August is generally preferred since much of Paris, and other larger cities, shut down, although I don’t mind it much as the city is a lot less-crowded. I do find it a bit incongruous that when summer fruits and vegetables are at their peak, the vendors at the marchés in Paris close up too. But c’est comme ça. I’m getting my fill of cherries, strawberries, apricots, peaches, and nectarines now.
Before Covid, incoming visitors would ask me about what’ll be open in August but even in the best of times, it’s hard to say as shops and restaurants in France don’t post their summer schedules. So a pro tip is to look at Facebook pages. In France, businesses use Facebook since it’s easy to update, and believe it or not, many actually answer messages there, rather than through the contact forms on their websites. (Unlike me, because Facebook is just one too many places to reply to messages at. Pro tip: I’m happy to reply to comments on my blog and Instagram. But Facebook and IG DMs are too much. So if you sent me one there, sorry I didn’t reply.)
So while things remain unclear regarding our personal vacances this year (as well as some of your DMs), and I’m not sure if we’ll be juillettists or aoûtiens, or juilletists (…and if you think all of this is confusing, welcome to my life!) I was happy when a friend who loves Marseille suggested an impromptu séjour to the oldest city in France, which is also one of the most diverse and exciting.
I’d been to Marseille once before but my time there was v. brief. What I remember most was that it was one of the least-touristy cities I’d ever been in. That changed in 2001 when a TGV line made Marseille a straight-shot from Paris, making the trip a rapid 3 hours. Now people like my friend, food writer Alec Lobrano, refer to Marseille as one of the most exciting food cities in France due to young chefs heading south seeking lower rents and taking advantage of the beautiful Mediterranean seafood and produce of Provence.
A few things to know about Marseille. The city is rather rugged, which means that it has a more frenetic Mediterranean energy than the rest of the region. It’s not as laid back as the smaller cities and towns in Provence, such as Aix-en-Provence. But has a vibrance and energy of a city that’s proud to be a little rough around the edges. (We didn’t experience any of the infamous crime that gets talked about but one should pay attention while there.) Walking through the city, you’ll pass a jumble of neighborhoods of buildings covered with a generous amount of graffiti, and cafés, bars, and restaurants spilling out sidewalks with locals sipping pastis, beer, and rosé in the summer, cooling themselves down in the heat…and watching the world go by. Like in the U.S., if you smell someone smoking, it’s more likely to be something else other than tobacco.
If coming during the summer, or probably any season, we learned very quickly to always reserve tables at restaurants well in advance. Restaurants we hoped to try were already booked over a week before our arrival, especially for in-demand terrace tables. (If you want one, ask when you reserve.) Many restaurants in Marseille are small and don’t have a lot of tables so seats can be tough to snag. One night we couldn’t get a table at any of the choices on our list, so we settled for delivery pizza - which was very good! Marseille is famous for it’s specific style of pizza, so we had the pizza delivered to us. Our top-floor rental apartment sported a pretty little terrace, which we founds was also the perfect place to eat pizza and sip rosé on. It was also a 5 flight walk-up, so none of us felt guilty gorging on pizza. (Although in reality, Marseille pizza isn’t loaded down with cheese nor is it overly bready.)
Also…it’s good to know that most restaurants have rather, um…unusual hours and days that they were open. Some were completely closed on weekends, others might be open for dinner two days a week and lunch six days a week, so you could eat lunch Tuesday through Sunday, but dinner only on Monday and Sunday…and so forth. It required a bit of moxie to schedule our meals but Romain is used to me being extra-interested in making sure we were eating at the right places, and our traveling companion gave me carte blanche for lunch and dinner (with a few conditions…like no anchovies, and dinners in courses, in the classic French-style) so here are some of the places we ate at:
Pizza in Marseille is serious business…and did you know the pizza food truck was invented in Marseille? Many (but not all) agree that some of the best in town is at La Bonne Mère. Our 3 pizzas that we had delivered had a very thin crust, Marseille style, with more modest toppings than other countries, due to the hot weather - because it’s hard to digest a thick layer of hot, gooey melted cheese when it’s 32ºC/90ºF outside.
We loved the pesto pizza the best, although in Marseille, the classic is moitié-moitié, half anchovy, half cheese. And in spite of the photo above, most pizza in Marseille uses Emmentaler cheese rather than mozzarella, à la français. Our traveling companion was vocal in her dislike of anchovies* and it was one of those situations where one might say “Well…maybe just avoid that half of the pizza?” But to keep everyone happy, we ordered pizzas everyone could enjoy.
*As a joke, since I don’t eat octopus, whenever we went to a place that had octopus on the menu, which is a standard menu item in Marseille, I noted that I don’t eat octopus. Yes, I know I don’t need to order octopus, but figured I should be vocal about that, too 😉
My favorite restaurant of the trip was the tentacle-free Limmat. Located on a landing of some well-used outdoor steps (yes…that’s Marseille…) I recommend going for lunch when foot traffic is lighter. You’ll be right in the thick of things, as we were, when we had an amazing stuffed onion on fromage blanc with dill that was filled with spelt and raisins. The cuisine of Marseille is influenced by the Arabesque countries, so you’ll find raisins, almonds, spices, and chilis, making appearances in some of the dishes. Another appetizer (also above) was a creative smoked mackerel salad with melon and chiles that was A+. My main course was a terrific Sardinian-style pasta was sardines, saffron, almonds, and fennel. (More pics here.) The server warned me, à la français, about some gentle spiciness in the pasta, which I assured her was a-ok with moi.
To get to Tuba, which is a 20-30mn drive from the city center, we took Uber there, which cost €25, and took the public transit boat back to Marseille, which was about the same price but definitely a lot more fun. (A few people got hit pretty head-on by some waves though and were soaked on arrival, so don’t sit in the back or sides of the boat if you don’t want to get wet.) On the advice of the very friendly reservation fellow, who turned out to be our waiter, we arrived early and hit the nearby mini-beach for some swimming in the sea, then retreated to the sunny restaurant terrace for lunch. I was the only man who wasn’t wearing an expensive designer watch, which I later learned the value of in a shop window downtown…
…nor did I have the rich Georgio Armani tan that men of those means always seem to have. (I wish I could figure out how those men and women managed to sit in the full-on Mediterrean sun for hours with no sunscreen for their caramel-colored tans.) But we enjoyed the Panisses (chickpea fritters) with dots of not-too-spicy harissa mayo and an excellent salad of raw artichokes and anchoïade, which didn’t seem to bother our friend. Less successful was the pasta with palourdes, which are small clams. While the pasta itself was tasty, most of the clams that did survive had shrunken considerably in their shells and it was a little surprising to see the pasta arrive at the table with a half-dozen empty clam shells garnishing the top. As a former restaurant cook (and for the €28 price), I was surprised that no one noticed the AWOL bivalves.
Their take on a Salade Niçoise, which I saw others eating, seemed to be a good choice if it’s on the menu for next time.
(In Goudes, the same small secteur that’s part of Marseille, is L’esplaï du Grand Bar de Goudes, which is on my list for next time. But since transport is spotty at night, it’s probably best to go in the daytime, unless you want to Uber it both ways which, admittedly, is a little drier.)
We snagged a table at La Boîte à Sardines, a quirky place that’s only open two nights per week, so we went for lunch. Many reviews point out the good food, but warned about the service, which fell on both sides of the spectrum. We were happy to have a table on the sidewalk and had beautiful plates of gently cooked razor clams with salicornes (sea beans), but when we asked to change one of our main courses, so we could try a few other things, we were told that the order couldn’t be changed. (Once again, as a former restaurant cook, I can gauge when it’s ok to ask to change an order, and when it’s too late.) Our friend who visits Marseille a lot said to was très Marseillais, and Romain (being Romain) didn’t let it go, so tussled with the server. We got our smackdown when I saw everyone else in the restaurant get their main courses before ours, regardless of when they put in their orders, and our order was the very last to come out of the kitchen. Touché.
I did like the sardine boulettes and panisses (below), which was a substantial portion (each was the size of a small baked potato) and we would have left with a better taste in our mouth if they’d let us change one of the courses. (Our French traveling companion noted, “That’s what I like about America. They are accommodating to customers.”)
Friendly service and good food were on the menu at Le Trois Quarts. We’d taken a long-ish walk across the city to get there and was happy to have the lovely staff squeeze a table onto the sidewalk for us, (yes, we’d reserved a table outside…but no one at any of the tables looked like they were ready to give it up, and in France, it’s not normal to ask people to leave) and we had wonderful bulots (whelks) with aïoli and glasses of Picpoul de Pinet wine, a not super well-known white wine made from the same grapes that also go into Noilly Prat vermouth, which is made in Marseillan.
After three days of hard-core eating, everything from fried sardine dumplings to pizza, we were happy to have fresh oysters from the Camargue, along with heirloom tomato salad with burrata, and wonderful very dark individual chocolate cakes for dessert with crème anglaise, which were perfect. And the servers could not have been lovelier or nicer, or more accommodating.
Because I had others in tow and we didn’t have oodles of time, I didn’t get to hit the bakeries, but I did go to Plauchut, considered the oldest in Marseille. I’m not wild about Navettes, the dry boat-shaped biscuits sometimes flavored with orange flower water or anise, but you can find croquettes (crunchy biscuits), calissons (almond paste candies) and interesting breads like Pompe a l’huile, a sort of briochy bread made with olive oil instead of butter there. The vendeuse was très Marseillaises as well, and insisted on serving me my nutty croquante and coffee at a little table outside in front of the church, which was both charming and disarming. She didn’t crack a smile when I tried to turn on my charm, so I have my work cut out of me when I go back.
We couldn’t get to everywhere we wanted to go, such as La Mercerie, Copper Bay Marseille, and Le Glacier de Roi, an ice cream shop that regretfully closes at 6:30pm (because I guess they figure - who wants ice cream on a warm summer night - ?) but we’ll be back!
Lastly, thanks to everyone for their support of my book Drinking French this year. It was a challenging year for everything, including cookbooks, with my book tour being canceled and general uncertainty in the world. So I was delighted to return from my trip and learn that Drinking French has been nominated for an IACP 2021 Cookbook Award in the Wine, Beer, and Spirits category.
The biggest gratification when you write a book is when people use it, so I appreciate everyone who enjoyed the book and mixed up café drinks such as citronnade (fresh lemonade), cups of chocolat chaud (French hot chocolate), apéritifs, and cocktails, and shared them not only on social media…but more importantly, with friends and family. Cheers!
Links I’m Liking
The stinky French sausage that divides palates…even in France. (Food & Wine)
Man arrested for stealing 42,000 pounds of pistachios. (Yahoo! News)
The not-entirely-simple art of asking “May I?” in French. (French Today)
Three minutes inside the inner universe and patterns of tropical fruit. At the 40 second mark, the photographer shows how he did it. #patience (Kottke.org)
Colorful cookware company implodes. (The Takeout)
A look inside the completely renovated Samaritaine department store (which is no longer a department store), now transformed into a luxury hotel and “gourmet” shopping spot. (Kasia Dietz, Sortir à Paris and de zeen)
New Recipes and Posts on My Blog
Faced with shelves of paperwork threatening to collapse, I decided to tackle my files of recipes clipped over the years from magazines and newspapers, starting with Lowfat Butterscotch Bars, which couldn’t be easier, and have a double-dose of butterscotch flavor.
France reopened to tourists and while the rules are subject the change, visitors are once again welcome back. I did a round-up of rules and tips visitors should consider when planning their trip to France.
Following up on her round-up of Top 10 Favorite French Cheeses, my friend Jennifer Greco listed her favorite Top 10 Cheese Shops in Paris. Even if you don’t have travel plans, be sure to bookmark it for when you do.
A visit to the semi-annual Marché des Producteurs in Paris, which brings together food producers from around France, all in one place, which is great for buying everything from cheese to cassoulet…and prunes, oysters, honey, fruit, olives, sausages, and more!
Most of us have become quite computer literate. But here’s a look back, when we had Prodigy (and Sears) blazing a path for us to the internet, back in 1990…
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