I hadn’t been to Marseille for over 12 years. I have family there, but for one reason or another our orbits haven’t aligned for a long time. In mid-January, I finally went down for a 48-hour visit to see my aunt and cousins. The Marseille I remember from my summers there as a child was one of scorching sunshine, smells of fresh sardines, herbs and floor soap. I’ll never forget the intense flavour of home-grown lemons and the floral, fragrant apricots that plopped off the trees in my Aunt and Uncles’ garden. I’ve never eaten apricots like that again. Back in the 1970s and 80s my family ran a couple of boulangeries and had a bar, so it follows that a love of eating and cooking has ingrained itself into me, alongside a notable obsession with bread and pastry. Quel surprise!
Despite now having young kids and being brain-blunted with the hecticness of life, echoey remnants of childhood memories came back to me as clear as day when I got off the train at the Gare St Charles. Snapshots of afternoons spent swimming at my cousin’s sports club on the cliffs at La Corniche followed by steak frites and ice cream, watching my Aunt roll out a massive load of brioche dough or make pizza with anchovies…ah everything has a food related twist! Marseille looks and feels similar to me as it did when I was growing up – hectic, noisy, grimy, beautiful, stately, crumbling and filled with the conflicting smells of drains, orange blossom, soap, incense, cologne and fried fish. My mum claims that the bin collection is run by the mafia – hence rarely collected – which is why there is often such a pong of overflowing rubbish. One taxi driver took out some antibac gel from his glove compartment – unprompted – and shared it around. Another told us dirty jokes (which were a bit sad) and a final one sang to us!
Even though our time there was short, I managed to get out for an explore and walk down to the Marché des Capucins where among the stalls selling colourful fruit, veg and fish I found an Aladdin’s cave of a shop: Saladin Epicerie du Monde. Everything about it screamed ‘Come inside!’, with tables outside displaying huge branches of sticky dates. The shop interior is like an Arabic souk with wall-to-wall spices, nuts, pulses, dried mushrooms, crystallised fruits, grains and so on. There is a huge counter dedicated solely to Turkish delight and sweetmeats. Wall-mounted tanks dispense honey. I saw at least 100 varieties of honey in jars, as well as 20 types of tinned halva, the sweetened sesame paste that my mum is so fond of. I literally burned through £50 in five minutes, and came out with dried ceps (local mushrooms), z’atar seed mix, dates (of course) a couple of jars of honey and a kilo of dried, salted tomatoes. I could have spent all day in there.
The date display:
Huge open bags of spices perfuming the air:
Honey and halva on the shelves, nuts and seeds below:
My mum perusing the wares:
Strange and exotic displays of crystallised fruits and nuts:
I’m not a fan of sweet, crystallised fruits (angelica in particular is so weird) but I think they look amazing:
Who knew you could get this many different types of salt? All kinds of flavours: rose, charcoal, herbs, chilli…
If you’re partial to a stock cube, there’s a basket on the counter next to the cash register:
A few other snapshots of Marseille – a city full of life and mess and noise and beauty…
Stunning walk up to the Gare St Charles:
The Vieux Port area:
Vieux Port fish market – we were there nearly at the end of trading and the smell was pretty funky!
An inventive reflective metal roof canopy on the dockside which keeps the heat off in the summer:
More produce from the Marché des Capucins…
‘My wife went to Marseille and all she got me was this lousy bag’:
Saladin Epicerie du Monde
6 et 10 rue des Capucins