Rarely does a city measure up to its myths and tales, as recounted by other writers. This month, I had the delicious pleasure of reading Julia Child’s memoir, My Years in France, a book I thoroughly enjoyed. The great dame tells stories of the years when she and her husband, Paul, were stationed in Provence, in the maritime city of Marseille. They rented an apartment overlooking the Vieux Port, and she made it her personal mission to discover and immerse herself in the seafood of this coastline. That left an impression on me, and I knew a trip there would be an adventure I would relish.
Marseille is a lively mix of new and old generations of French and North Africans from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, who all together have become the beating heart of this city. Upon arriving, I wandered from one neighborhood to another, and I was seduced by the many fragrant spices of the cuisines, not to mention the vibrant colors. As I approached the port, I was mesmerized by the hustle and bustle of the fish market, and was pleasantly surprised to find that this age-old institution had not changed for centuries.
Julia Child was fascinated by the women fishmongers she met here; she described them as being tough and brutal, a badge of their many harsh years as fishmongers, like the generations before them. The entire quai was dotted with these women – and in between them a few men – who are experts in every kind of fish and crustacean. They prepare your selection with an innate know-how and efficiency. While the price per kilogram is set, haggling is all part of the game. The customers found it expensive, thinking that it should be cheaper to shop at the port than at their local supermarket, when in fact the reverse is true.
I stopped to speak to and view the catch of each of these women. Some had their children sitting next to them, a sign, perhaps, that they are passing on the tradition. What began as a visit based on Julia Child’s memoir took on a new meaning for me, as if I were picking up where she had left off. There was a beauty to these women, a harsh one, a sense of tradition and honor to their lives and what they did. What made it so poetic was the fact you see very few female fishmongers in other cities, yet a port city like Marseille with over 1.6 million inhabitants has managed to preserve its traditions, not as a dog and pony show for tourists, but as a reality for its locals.
The few men at the market had lived the lives of fishermen, and now in their older years were selling their selection instead. I saw one, named Monsieur Rabbat, grab a long eel, slit its guts open, pull out its innards and throw them into the sea within seconds. This was real, it was honest, and it has been a part of Marseille’s culinary culture for hundreds of years. As your purchases are prepared in these tiny stalls at the edge of the Mediterranean, you can’t help but be amazed at the experience and feel closer to the sea and to the flavors and the meaning of seafood – a part of the story that is too often missing from the experience of fish shopping in our modern world.
True to Julia’s memoir, no two fishmongers could agree on the perfect Bouillabaisse recipe, nor would a single one give me a detailed recipe. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and the ability to personalize one's own unique combination of ingredients.