A trip to France is always a delight for lovers of gastronomy, but Marseille is truly a special place to indulge your appetites. With a balmy Mediterranean climate, Marseille is the sunniest city in France, and its historic importance as a sea port and trade center have influenced local cuisine and food culture for centuries. Marseille’s proximity to important French wine regions, reliance on fresh and local seafood, and historical exposure to culinary traditions from Spain, Italy, and Morocco have created a unique local food culture unlike anywhere else.
For some, food culture in Marseille practically starts and ends with bouillabaisse. Originally made from scraps of bony fish left over from the day’s catch, bouillabaisse is a fish stew that originated in Marseille and is now famous all over the world. While every Mediterranean port city has a local variation of a fish stew, bouillabaisse relies on Provençal herbs and spices, and has a flavor all its own.
Traditionally, at least three kinds of fish must be included in bouillabaisse, along with potatoes, garlic, onions, tomatoes, a bouquet garni of Provençal herbs, fennel, saffron, and cayenne pepper. Although all the ingredients are cooked together, just before serving they are separated. The broth is served with thick slices of bread and spicy mayonnaise, while the fish is served separately on a plate.
However, bouillabaisse is one of those dishes where every restaurant and every family has their own recipe, each hotly debating which is best and which is most authentic. Even the famous Bouillabaisse Charter of 1980 did not stem the tide of restaurants offering knockoff versions to tourists. As with paella in many parts of Spain, if you are ordering it at a restaurant, it often needs to be ordered ahead, and only for groups of two or more people. Most chefs agree that the bigger the group eating bouillabaisse, the better it tastes.
Perhaps the best way to have an authentic bouillabaisse in Marseille is to learn to make it yourself. At Le Miramar restaurant, on the Vieux-Port of Marseille overlooking the ocean, weekly classes teach visitors how to make bouillabaisse with the classic recipe that has made Miramar famous all over the world. Learning a classic recipe under the exacting eye of a chef is a great way to not only experience the best bouillabaisse, but to learn how to judge all others.
Other local dishes worth noting include:
- Swordfish: with ratatouille and saffron rice
- Moules Marinière: mussels generously seasoned with garlic, onion, and Herbes de Provence
- Tapenade: a chunky paste of capers, olives, and olive oil, popular before meals or as a light snack
- Panisse: a pastry made with chickpea flour, fried crispy, reflecting Arab influences on the region
Go on a wine tour
Marseille is just minutes away from the wine regions of the Rhone, Provence, and Languedoc. There are ample opportunities to step away from the hustle and bustle of the city to visit a quiet vineyard and experience French wines in their native habitat.
Of particular interest is the Cassis area of Provence, producing red, white, and rosé wines within a mile or two of the Mediterranean Sea. Cassis wines (not to be confused with the Creme de Cassis liquor that is produced in the Burgundy region) were among the first to be awarded the French appellation, but the small size of the region and high local demand leave little for the export market, and these prized wines are hard to find outside of Provence.
Go on a gourmet tour
There are a variety of gourmet walking and bike tours in Marseille, combining history, sightseeing, and tasting delicious local dishes. These tours are a great way to sample a variety of foods, learn about Marseille history and food culture, and get a little exercise between courses. The variety of different tours offer opportunities to visit chocolate factories, shop at fish and produce markets, or even go truffle hunting.
Marseille offers a rich, flavorful insight into the combined culinary traditions of French and Mediterranean cultures, mingled and celebrated here like nowhere else.