Toinou is a stripped-back seafood temple, with the atmosphere of a canteen (you queue and pay before eating), but the firm-fleshed shellfish of piscine legend. The stall outside sells 20 varieties of French oyster, along with clams (four kinds), prawns (five types) and two sizes of sea urchin. We dip crusty bread into anchoiade, bracingly robust, and slurp sweet Belon oysters and sea urchins by the dozen. I ask if they have Tabasco. The waitress stops, stares at me. “Non!” she spits, as if I’ve just besmirched her father’s good name. Leigh just grins.
Night has fallen and the air is thick with the clink of glass, the fizz of gossip and clatter of metal on plate. We walk back to the port, to Le Souk. Moroccan food rarely fills me with delight, yet once again, the quality is remarkable. Fluffy couscous, fierce homemade harissa, well-spiced merguez, lashings of soupy chickpeas and a small leg of lamb, spoon soft. All sloshed down with a bottle of Moroccan Guerrouane red. Out to sea, the lights of the fishing boats wink. We totter home, to sleep the sleep of Dumas’ dead.
Chez Michel is thoroughly old school, no tasting menus here, or foams or cheffy fantasies. Nope, this is an upmarket bistro much loved by Fisher. From the outside it doesn’t promise much. Inside, though, with its polished marble floor, pristine linen tablecloths, lovingly buffed mirrors and proud display of gleaming fish, it instils hungry confidence.
We order boiled prawns, then bourride (a fish stew with aioli). “One of the great dishes of Provence,” according to Elizabeth David, although from Sette, down the coast. It’s that, or the bouillabaisse. “No mucking about here,” says Leigh with glee.
First, we’re presented with the fish, dressed up like hopeful Thai brides. Weever, sea bass and conger. They’re whisked away to be cooked. They arrive back 20 minutes later, firm and just translucent, with a pile of steamed potatoes. Then the broth, fish stock thickened with aioli, thick as double cream and with an identical hue. The garlic flavour is strong, but not overwhelming, the soft sweetness of fish never far behind. If bouillabaisse is the fiery harlot, then this is the voluptuous courtesan, clad in fur coat and silk knickers. It smothers and seduces, a fish soup that leads, inevitably, to one’s bed. Magnificent but tiring all the same.
It’s our last lunch and we discuss Fisher. She talked about Marseille and its “insolite” nature, strictly translated as “contrary to what is usual and normal.” But she argued that’s not quite right. It’s a word that’s “mysterious, unknowable and, in plain fact, indefinable. As indefinable as Marseille itself.” A cross, perhaps between Gallic shrug and really couldn’t give a fuck. And like Fisher, even the fleeting visitor to this great city cannot fail to fall for her “phoenix-like vitality, its implacably realistic beauty and brutality.”
Marseille is proud but not arrogant, cultured without pretension, a city happy in its own skin. Plus it has food to make the taste buds stand to attention and belt out, well, the revolutionary words of “La Marseillaise”: “Aux armes, citoyens…” But not before a decent lunch.
“It’s a most congenial place to inhabit,” Meades says with affection. Why else would he live here? “Friendly in a way that Paris has never been and laid back in a way that London has never been. It’s also rather bolshie. It is to France what Liverpool is to England.”
But it’s a survivor, too. Of diseases and invaders, of “every kind of weapon known to European warfare, from the axe and arrow to sophisticated derivatives of old Chinese gunpowder” as Fisher put it.
And plagues, both natural and narcotic. “It is hard not to surmise,” she wrote, “that if a nuclear blast finally levelled the place, some short, dark-browed men and women might eventually emerge from a few deep places, to breed in the salt marshes that would have gradually revivified the dead waters around the old port.”
Marseille doesn’t demand your love. It doesn’t want it. But believe me, after even a few hours, you’ll be pledging your eternal troth. Forget heroin. Once Marseille’s in your system, you’re hooked for life.