Monday, 4 August 2008

Fish, sun and seabreeze - Aix & Marseille

Colours:pale yellow, mute burgundy, bursting green; smells: bright and warm of almost over ripen melons and velvety peaches, slightly sour and pleasant of local goat cheeses, as well as almost sickening but appetizing of far away Camembert, warm and homely aroma of roasting chickens; and shapes: glistening circles of pots with lavender honey -not quite golden with overtones of lilac, oblongs of cheerful aubergines- the colour of the night desert sky, stripy creamy courgettes and burning red chillies; and lots of rounds of course: from fat tomatoes to shy and tender apricots.

The Marche on the Place des pĂȘcheurs is the epitome of that carefully staged, but ultimately very real French market. It was inspiring to approach this little, old square early in the morning and see it slowly waking up by insistent local women with bags on wheels buying from the list, busy businessmen, sipping hot bitter coffee and only glancing at the unfolding show, curious and naively grinning tourists, ready to buy the first peach, watermelon, pepper in sight - to the obvious scorn of locals and glee of the sellers.

The visual picture of the market was enlivened by the gypsy-jewish-african sounds of a colourful little band (they were a curious mix of Israelis, French and a Japanese flute player). I joined the crowds to watch the band - tired but happy after all the shopping – sitting on the payment, listening to this curiously called 'Gettabang', wiggling my bum and loving the sounds so much that I bought their CD - to remember that warm and satisfying morning..

I enjoyed immensely the beauty and the sweet tastes of Provencal markets, however, at the end the place that I loved the most was half an hour by bus from Aix - so unbelievable close in distance and so far in atmosphere!

Marseille - with its grand architecture, smelly side streets, sparkling sea and the multitude of faces, is a perfect combination of what the rest of France can offer -elegance and poise, with a North African desire to live and sell. I loved the feeling of being safe, knowing that I was in a European country with expected rules and regulations, and experiencing the edge of a Moroccan medina all at the same time.
I know that Marseille is not to everyone's liking. In fact, I was told not that long ago by a well-travelled ex-army officer in his 60's that, when asked what was the most worrying, uncomfortable experience during his years of travels, said 'Marseille'. And the guy had been to the depths of Africa and Asia! Admittedly, this was some years ago and the town has cleaned up its act quite considerably since then, but the place still retains its reputation for being dangerous, dirty and unfriendly. I thought it was the most alluring and intriguing place during my travels in France!

Marseille is alive. It is like a young lover, who is rather penniless, but knows of its sexiness and is confident even when wearing old outfits. He is also warm and kind; it smiles at you and open its arms.

Marseille is also one bustling market.

I was staying with an amazing girl, Gaelle (who I met through couchsurfing - a gift to travellers like me who don’t like museums, but love little unknown bars) who took me to a small market in Cours Julien the day after I'd arrived. We went very early in the morning since Gaelle had to go to work after that. The market, which was selling a small selection of organic produce, was a very gentle introduction to the market 'scene' in Marseille. It was neat and pretty, and somehow reminded me of the markets in Britain. Maybe because if was so early in the morning, maybe because I was myself feeling happy and calm, but this market had the most relaxing atmosphere I had encountered so far. We had a quick coffee there and I bought a beautiful loaf of bread - paid d'epeautre. It was deliciously chewy and slightly nutty and wonderfully filling. It was made out of a Provencal ancient variety of spelt.

I was very lucky to be staying very close to the centre of Marseille and so my next stop was the bazaar of the town - the daily market in the Old Port. Because of its location I really expected it to be a tourist spectacle, fun and amusing, but ultimately unreal. I realised quickly how wrong I was. The market was basically a row of tables - about 15 in total - all placed alongside the seashore, with small fishing boats that supply the market bobbing happily behind the sellers. It was packed with all sorts of crowds, the majority of whom were in fact middle aged local women with perms and careful eyes. I think the reason why so few ‘outsiders’ were actually buying was partly because us, the visitors, wouldn't have a clue as to what to do with all these silver sea creatures! Books often talk about the ways to spot really fresh fish – that it should not really have any smell, but should have really bright eyes. Only now I understand what that really means. And the variety on those stalls! I spend a good half an hour walking around, trying to decipher the names of the fish, wanting to jot them down, to remember them for later. Useless! But I did ask questions.. I was very curious to see this old man selling little pink round..things..that looked like flat pearls. In fact they were 'doors to snail houses'. I had no idea that the shells even had doors:) but here you go. The man was selling them for luck (I found out that you can wear the little pink things as necklaces).

I was also very puzzled by this large and very ugly red fish that seemed to be battling for life for a lot longer than all other types around it. It was Rascasse, or a Scorpion fish, a prerequisite for a famous Bouillabaisse - the fish soup that is so famous around the world and that originates in Marseille (see the link on the left for the history of this fish stew and a recipe).

I had come to Marseille with an intention to try Bouillabaisse. All eateries in the old town sell this delicacy, however I had been told by several locals that none of the restaurants in the town centre were preparing the 'real stuff', ie they were buying some ready-made stock and adding fish to it later. To taste the real Bouillabaisse you have to pay 40-50 euros per head, I was told..I then asked for a recommendation for just a good fish restaurant and was told to go to Chez Fon Fon, outside the Old Town, near the beaches. I thought I'd just order some simple fish and forget the famous fish stew...

I just had to have the Bouillabaisse of course. Being in Marseille, dreaming of that fish wonder and not trying it! I paid 46 euros for the dish at the end - more than I'd ever paid for one single dish - but it was worth every penny.

The Fon Fon was an elegant, cool restaurant, with beautiful cutlery, crispy white table linen and customers, all well-off French aristocrats on holiday (I later found out that the place is a legend in France and had been visited by many well-known people). To say I didn't really match the crowds would be an understatement - I was wearing torn jeans and an old tshirt - but I didn't give a sh*t! I had my own table in the middle of the room, I ordered nothing else but the soup and some water and I spent the next hour enjoying the taste of this wonderfully delicate and such flavoursome dish...

The Bouillabaisse is served in two stages: first the waiter pours hot, dark red broth into your bowl - it is the liquid essence of the dish, where fish had been cooked earlier. It is full of colour and spice: fennel, pepper, fresh bay leaf, but the star is of course saffron (that, by the way, partly explains the cost of the dish – saffron is, as you know, the most expensive spice in the world; that coupled with the freshness and quantity of the fish..). Then the waiter brings a large silver platter with about 10 different types of fish – all whole, not boned, lightly cooked in the steaming broth. The waiter explains what each fish is. This is what I was having: St-Pierre (John Dory), Vive and Galinette (for which I couldn't find the translations I’m afraid), the afore-mentioned Scorpion fish and the one whose firm, gelatinous texture and flavoursome meat I liked the most - the eel.

The waiter then goes away and fillet the fish and brings it back to you, together with saffron infused, bright yellow and crumbly potatoes. You then eat all of this beautiful food, together with a traditional condiment of Rouille - mayonnaise with garlic and saffron - and small toasts that you can dip into your hot bouillon...I was happy:) I felt light and slightly drunk on all the fish I'd eaten, so I took a stroll along the beach, warming my skin under the hot, saffron-coloured Marseillaise sun...

This was my last day in the South of France and the fish, the sun and another - North African - market selling buttery flaky pastries on the way back to the apartment were a perfect ending to the trip. I did have a celebration later on in the evening though, just before taking my night train back to London, amongst the warmest, kindest people I'd met through Gaelle: amongst others there was a beautiful Algerian woman with witty and intelligent eyes, a 'real' Marsell..ian?:) with the accent that I found very difficult to understand but whose soft gestures and kind heart were very easy to comprehend, a little French girl - a designer making cloths upstairs, a Turk who later gave me a lift to the station in his fast bike, and the main man of the house - Tef, the most generous and funny and clever host we could have; he is originally from Istanbul, but has lived in Paris and London, but fell in love with Marseille and has spent almost 10 years in the area. He made us heaps of freshly grilled sardines, which we ate with lots of green salad with garlicky dressing, baguettes, whilst drinking cheap cold white wine and Pastis. I said I would be back, soon:)

This thread is probably the longest so far, but I am now back in London and am leaving for Estonia in a couple of days time. AfFter spending a couple of weeks with my bratelka, muz and the family I will be off again, on my own, for the last - and the main - leg of the trip, Turkey is the first main focus. I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to it and how much I have enjoyed the last two months. Of course I have had numerous points of melancholy, some loneliness and frustration, but I have been able to see the sky, notice the small print of life (oh God, the moment of pompousness are unavoidable!) and have time and energy to look at people, to talk to them. You can say 'but obviously, you haven't been working, you lazy thing, for the last 10 weeks!' - yes, I feel lucky: I had found the way to take this time off, to be on my own and with other people; I also have an amazing man at home, who understands my desire and need for freedom and exploration and who I can't wait to see every time I'm away for more than a day:) What will happen on my return? I have no idea, but I feel certain that things will fall into places, I'll find the way..

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