Why is food so good here? wonders MFK Fisher. “I think it’s because of the peculiar liveliness of what grows behind it on the ancient soil, and especially what swims and creeps and slithers at its watery gates.” Exactly. The next morning, we wander through the market in the port; well, more a scrappy collection of tables selling a scrappy collection of fish. Mainly rascasse, rouget (red mullet), sardines, sole and dorade (gilt-head bream). Polystyrene boxes seethe with tiny swimmer crabs (another staple of soup) while conger eel leer and grey mullet gasp their last. There’s no hard sell here, no flashing of wares, save the occasional half-hearted cry. It’s an age-old scene, but one that takes place in the shadow of Norman Foster’s L’Ombriere, a brilliant modern structure, which sits a large rectangular mirror, as thin as a razor’s edge, upon eight pillars. It gleams proudly, glinting with sun and sea, adding a 21st century shine to an otherwise ancient port.
A quick pastis, then a typically grumpy taxi ride, down the great La Canebiere, (“a street,” according to Alexander Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo, “of which the modern Phoceans are so proud that they say with all the gravity in the world… ‘If Paris had La Canebiere, Paris would be a second Marseille’”). And on to the Modernist masterpiece Unite d’Habitation, started in 1947, and perhaps the great proto-Brutalist work. With stained glass windows by Picasso, it has charm, and curves, and visions of a future that never was. The view from the top takes in everything — yellowing concrete tower blocks, terracotta-tiled villas, the starkly white lines of the velodrome, the trams, buses and far off hills. Marseille sprawls, with no particular rhyme or rhythm. It does as it pleases. Rather like its inhabitants. A city apart, and alone.
We take the bus back, down wide avenues, lined with stalls selling nylon knickers and mismatched shoes. And across town, close to the sea, past the Catalan beach once more, and down a set of steps to L’Epuisette, a one-star Michelin place with a corrugated iron roof. There’s the usual faffing about napkin folding and pointless pomp. Some Michelin places just can’t help themselves. The food is modern but assured, the flavours as fine as the technique: plump langoustines in silken pasta; burnished sweetbreads with small cubes of apple jelly. A sensational piece of John Dory, gleefully fresh, and the chefs take on pieds and paquets, pretty “paquets” of rouget, and slow-braised ribbons of squid. We pick at stinky cheese and drain the remains of a Clos Ste Hune Riesling.
A kip beckons, but before that, a stop at Maison Empereur: “Maison de qualite reconnue dans les univers Quincaillerie, Droguerie, Coutellerie, Arts Culinaires depuis 1827.” It’s an emporium of rare charm and depth, selling everything from brass madeleine moulds to meat grinders, terrines, copper pans, cleaning products, wire wool, household jackets, knives, cocottes and gadgets that slice the ends off eggs. We stock up on essentials we don’t need, then wander back through a working market, where old men sit and gossip, sipping cups of mint tea, while stout ladies elbow their way through the crowds. The usual smoking youths loiter with intent, watching everything and nothing.
Leigh is in heaven, at its spread of fish (over 10 kinds of white fish alone), and the relative value. “No tourist tat, just a working market for people who actually bloody cook each day.” Indeed, the haggling is fierce. “This is how France should be,” he declares with a regal sweep of his arm. We stop by a tired bar and order a beer. A cadaverous man, shaking, ancient and limping shuffles in. The barman, while hardly acknowledging him, unthinkingly pours a measure of cheap whisky into a smudged glass, and tops it up from a plastic bottle of Coke. The old man gulps it in one, leaves a clatter of coins on the bar, and hobbles out. We wander home, the light pouring away, to the sounds of bells, seagulls and the distant tinkle of trams.