Aix en Provence – here
Marseille – here
It’s a quick 35-minute bus ride from Aix en Provence to Marseille, France’s second largest city and its oldest. As my Bin and I surface from the depths of the metro stop, we literally stop in our tracks as we take in the sight of Vieux Port: it’s beyond stunning.
A historic quarter, all types of water vessels have been docking here for more than 26 centuries. Colorful and commercial, the harbor is home to humble fishing boats and expansive yachts.
While in Marseilles, we stick to the harbor because we prefer it. The inner city has lots of gritty character but is graffitied and rough around the edges.
Vieux Port is the city’s pulsing heart, a cluster of galleries, churches, and restaurants filled with the excited chatter of both tourists and locals.
The InterContinental Marseille – Hotel Dieu is one of the most resplendent hotels I’ve ever seen.
The view of the harbor from The InterContinental Marseille. My shot catches the seagull in flight.
Vieux Port is the largest port in France, and it’s lorded over by the majestic silhouette of the Notre-Dame de la Garde. Constructed in 1853 and in the course of its existence, the basilica has served as a place of worship and a look-out post. Today, it’s regarded as a guardian, standing 162 meters (531 feet) above the city, a vision as inseparable to Marseille as their bouillabaisse.
Oh, bouillabaisse (BOO-yah-bess)! It’s considered one of France’s national treasures, and the dish Marsellais claim as their contribution to the glory that is French cuisine. Originally a soup cooked by fishermen from the leftovers of their catch, today, it’s a soup that demands quite a shopping list – a minimum of four types of fish and occasionally, shellfish. It’s these ingredients that ultimately contribute to the quality of the soup.
It’s interesting to be told that bouillabaisse was originally prepared using sea water. Various refinements have evolved, replacing the sea water with a stock that begins with olive oil, tomatoes, onions, garlic, saffron, and fennel, followed by the fish. This already intensely flavored base is then subjected to a rather surprising aspect when cooking seafood – it’s boiled vigorously. This method lends itself to the dish’s name: bouillir meaning “to boil [down]”, and abaisser, “fall or waste”, (a soup borne of leftovers).
The accoutrements for eating bouillabaisse: olive oil so fine it gleams, crushed pepper, and fleur de sel de Camargue.
Even the eating of bouillabaisse is utterly fascinating, making me see that whatever so-called “bouillabaisses” I may have had in the past were nonsense.
Bouillabaisse is served in two parts, the soup first. The color mesmerizes me, a muddle of yellow and brown, a deep citrine or goldenrod, if I want to label it more fancifully. Sips savored slowly summon suggestions of saffron and the sea. Behold a bounty: on the tongue and in the mind.
“You know how to eat this?” The waiter asks as he sets down a plate of crisp baguette rounds orbiting out from a golden middle. Called rouille, French for “rust,” it’s an unctuous paste made from olive oil, breadcrumbs and garlic. Its saffron yellow hue is telling of the saffron that’s in it, and so is its delicate flavor. I initially imagine the rouille to be reddish as some possess chili peppers, paprika, and cayenne, but not this one. The waiter instructs us to spread the rouille on the toast and stir it into the broth. So we do and then we swoon at the succeeding sensations.
The second serving is the fish. Dampened in a bath of broth, my Bin and I distinguish three types of fish, each one slightly varying in texture from the other. Also, a handful of mussels thrown in, as if absent-mindedly joining the fray. It’s one of those meals that I wish would never end; I want to savor and suspend myself in this soup, this gift of the sea to me.
Dessert is a pineapple carpaccio, slices of fruit so thin they’re translucent. Completing this edible canvas are vanilla bean ice cream and garnishes of raspberry and crushed pistachios.
One last thing to keep in mind. Real bouillabaisse is expensive; its ingredients practically insist that it is. Thus, anything less than €50 per order, and you’re cheating yourself out of the real thing. As Pierre and Jean-Michel Minguella of Restaurant Miramar in Marseille once said in an interview, “Our belief is that if you have gone to the effort and expense of a long journey to experience a different region and its culinary specialties, you should do your best to find out about it, and search out a product prepared to the highest standards in the authentic way, even if the price seems startling.”