International cooking for the youthful malcontent.

Travelogue 4: Marseille

After hearing and reading about the North African market in Marseille (pronounced mar-say), I knew I wanted to go, badly. Marseille has something like 800,000 people living in the city proper, and around 1/4 of them are immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria (known as the Maghreb, collectively) and this fact alone would be enough to interest me. In addition to a love of international foods, I also spend a lot of time reading about other cultures, history, and other demographic facts and figures. To skip a long non-food discussion, I was very interested in what this city was like – even moreso after hearing the rumours of its gritty, working-class reputation. What was it really like? How do these cultures manifest themselves in French urban life? What interesting things could I find in their market – things I may have never seen before, since Toronto has significantly less North African influence (if any, at all).

Happily, the rumours of Marseille’s dirty port-city vibe are somewhat misguided. Driving into Marseille, it is certainly evident that it is not Paris but, it is not ugly, either. Perhaps one might consider it ugly when compared to Paris’ seemingly permanent antique beauty, but Paris, to me, also feels like it is a fixed idea – whereas Marseille is a living, breathing city. The highway from Aix-en-Provence took us right onto the edge of the ports, and my first reaction to the scenery and layout was that it felt a lot like Toronto: highway along the water, downtown core arranged along one major north-south-ish street, glass buildings and rows upon rows of modern, but hardly fancy, shops and malls, dotted liberally with ethnic restaurants, trash, and commuters trying to get home (as opposed to tourists). It felt disarmingly familiar, in a very pleasant way. Sure, it’s no Paris, but this is a city I could actually relate to, while the big P is like the girl who thinks she’s too pretty for you, and really, you have nothing in common anyway.

We found a parking lot underneath the Centre Bourse shopping mall in the downtown core (which also felt familiar – they even had a Body Shop!) and headed to street level to navigate our way to the North African market. After a few twists and turns (it’s hard to know how far to walk when the only map you have is drawn cartoon-style and has no scale information) we knew we were on the right track – we could see down a side street into a large open area, filled with people and market tents. Crossing into this street, we were instantly met with Halal meat shops offering Ramadan sales, endless tables of Tunisian sweets (we didn’t get any pictures of these – most were covered with plastic wrap, and the ones that weren’t were covered in hornets – but take a look at this for the general idea), and mountains of fresh (and non-French, even) produce. This was interesting.

Now, I’m not going to say that I found a lot of things that I couldn’t find at home. I won’t sell Toronto short – we have a lot of peculiar items available if you know where to look (don’t think I have forgotten about you, tawa at Kitchen Queen – I’m coming for you one day) but, the concentration of North African goods into one area – I had not seen anything like this in person. First, we bought some buttery flatbread from a street vendor – something to munch on since we were tired from the long drive from Italy (and the previously mentioned disgusting mushroom, mayo and brie panini didn’t get finished so we were a bit peckish) – and perused an alley full of nut vendors, more beautiful and intricately decorated sweets, and fishmongers. I bought a tube of Tunisian harissa in one shop. Harissa is a commonly used chili paste in North African cuisine, mostly made of various chilies (including piri-piri, if you’re familiar with Portugese food – also called African bird’s eye chili) and usually some small amount of garlic and spices.

Next up, I wandered into a kitchenware store to stare at tagine pots. I’ve often considered buying a tagine pot, but the only ones available in Toronto (that I can find, and I haven’t really looked that hard) have been very expensive and intricately designed. Considering that my sister once purchased one for 90 dollars only to have it crack the first time she used it, I was hesitant to rush out and do the same. However, I purchased a small tagine for 10 euro. It won’t cook a meal for more than 2 people but it was worth the investment, I figured. Once home, I would research how to use it properly. I’ll write a post on that sometime as well.

I managed, later on, to carry it safely in my carry-on bag through 2 airports, without any damage or hassle. The shop-owner who sold it to me kindly wrapped it up in bubble-wrap for my trip – he spoke to me only in French, but I could make out that much, at least. He also asked where I was from, and when I said Canada, he smiled and said I was very far from home. While this may be true, I also felt more at home there, in Marseille, than anywhere else on this trip. A guide book had warned that most of the vendors in this market do not speak English and, moreover, they sometimes do not even speak French very well (favouring their native Arabic, of course) so I had worried about how to communicate while I was shopping, but so far, I had no trouble.

For the final stop, my brother pointed to the door of a store whose exterior was almost obscured by barrels full of nuts and dried beans. It was a spice shop. Exactly what I had been looking for. The interior was appropriately dimly-lit (excess light is not good for spice) and absolutely no floor space was wasted with countless barrels and sacks of dried whole spices, powders and blends were in the main area, and the walls were lined with teas, sweets, and coolers full of fresh pastes and mixtures of unidentifiable origin. Everything had labels, of course, but the labels were in French, and French spelling of spices, and particularly custom spice blends, often have little or nothing to do with their English counterparts, so unless you know what you’re looking at by sight, good luck!

I was aided by a very friendly spice merchant who, after speaking a lot of French at me that I did not understand, managed to convey his message across by showing me what he meant – any spices I was trying to purchase had to be purchased in minimum amounts, usually of 100g. Oops. Luckily, he had a sense of humour, and was willing to help me get what I wanted, in acceptable amounts: cloves (with fresh orange tips), dried lesser galangal, dried lavender, and a bag of the special house blend Ras el hanout. Ras el hanout means “head/top of the shop” (or something similar) in Arabic, and is supposed to be a blend of the best spices the shop has. This was the house blend, so I imagine (in my head, at least) one of the guys who worked there concocted this blend. The house recipes are supposed to be secret (and there was no way I could ask this guy anyway) so I have no idea what is in it (the internet gives me a rough idea) but it smells absolutely amazing. After the market we headed back to parking lot (after a Nutella milkshake break) and headed home, to Cairanne.

I was satisfied. Marseille’s North African market had given me what I had hoped it would: a refreshing multi-cultural urban experience. It was a good break from rustic vineyard life, and very different from anything else we encountered on this trip. Marseille has a very interesting identity – they pride themselves on being Marseillais first, French second, and this allows their diverse residents to co-exist in relative harmony as anyone, Algerian to Italian to French, can be Marseillais. And there I was, one random Caucasian Canadian, waiting in line behind a Muslim woman rocking a baby stroller while she paid for her bags of spices and chocolate, not knowing more than few words of French but being helped repeatedly by smiling strangers (I was not exactly making large purchases, so monetary motivations could not have played a big role here) in a spice shop buried in a souk-like market hidden in the downtown side-streets of the largest commercial port in France… well, I don’t know what to say, but I felt, and feel, strangely connected to the place. That place felt real to me, when not much else we saw on this trip did, for one reason or another (too idyllic, too grandiose, too quaint). We were only in Marseille for several hours, but still I feel this way. It reminded me of home, of Toronto, and of the multi-cultural atmosphere there that I love so much.

It was a good feeling to have, too, since we were heading back to Canada after two more nights, and one full day in Provence. It was time to start thinking of going home. Well, almost, anyway. On the last day (spent mostly by the pool, getting sunburned) we went through the fridge at the villa, looking to use up as much perishable food as we could before we left. The rest of the family went out for a few hours to make final visits to wine stores, purchasing bottles to take home, while I stayed at the villa and began preparing dinner from whatever I could find. My sister, Caryn, had left 4 bags of handmade raviolis in the fridge, purchased at a village market in Vaison-la-Romaine (I think that was the place – my dad will correct me if not) and filled with, well, I had no idea. It turns out one bag was a standard cheese filling, one was pizzaiola (tomato and oregano), one I forget, and one was some kind of fresh mint and potato mixture (which was interesting, to say the least). I grilled a package of sausages, and prepared a tomato sauce from canned tomatoes. That was dinner. For dessert, Anuja picked up a few bars of dark chocolate for me, and together we prepared a chocolate cake recipe from David Lebovitz’s book, The Sweet Life in Paris (speaking of which, we also made his recipe for brownies with dulce de leche – Anuja’s new favourite thing – with very fine results). It was, with no competition, the best chocolate cake I have ever made, or tasted. In fact, it ruined me for chocolate for over a week, which is a long time to go without chocolate.

It was very dark, rich, moist with a deliciously crisp edge on it. I cannot fully describe to you how amazing this cake was, except to say that Anuja and I brought out the jar of dulce de leche (or “confiture de lait”, in French – “milk jam”), with the idea of possibly “buttering” the cake with it, if it needed any help. The jar was never needed or opened, and we both agreed that if the cake was any more rich, we definitely could not have finished that second piece together. With that, our vacation came to a close with dark chocolate and coffee. Fitting.

I don’t know if I can offer a proper summary of this trip. It was too busy, over-filled with activities and scenery, and I’ve broken this vacation into 4 parts because it felt fragmented – everything was so different – it was like 4 vacations in one trip. I can only list off the things I will never forget: roasted veal, the swimming pool, pain au chocolate, croque monsieur, tender calamari, pesto everything, dulce de leche, cheese, melons, Tunisian sweets (I did not try any, but they could not possibly have tasted as good as they looked, so maybe it’s better this way?), and David Lebovitz’s chocolate cake. Seriously, look at that thing.

Thanks for reading. I’ll get back to the recipes shortly. Look for some kind of tagine showing up soon. Moroccan food – that’s a thing. Also, thanks to Anuja and Chris for most of the photos. I never remember to bring my own camera on trips, but they did, and I appreciate that.

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One response

  1. “the big P is like the girl who thinks she’s too pretty for you, and really, you have nothing in common anyway.” – I’ve never heard someone describe Paris so poignantly in one line. I just came from there myself, traveling through France. I stumbled on your blog looking for the schedule of the market. I feel the same way about Marseille as you do… it’s prettier, accessible, feels like home.

    September 16, 2010 at 4:40 am

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