Saturday, 17 November 2012

Exploring Foodie France: Marseille - Part 2

I wrote a few weeks ago about Marseille, France's second largest city and an intriguing multicultural, Mediterranean gem. Whilst doing some research for a return visit this winter, I found the photos from my fleeting visit in June - mostly of food and restaurants - and felt it was high time I shared them on the Blog. Marseille's restaurants are a really refreshing mix of traditional, local cuisine, Mediterranean, Italian, North African and Asian cooking, with none of the stuffiness often associated with French restaurants and chefs. There's a cosmopolitan feel to the bars and restaurants lining the old port and the squares of Le Panier and beyond, which now and again give way to a simple, rustic charm more reminiscent of a Greek fishing village than a huge commercial port. Location aside, at most restaurants we visited the timeless combination of fresh seafood, sun-drenched vegetables, and Provençal wine spoke for itself.

The area most populated by tourists is the Vieux Port and nearby squares, such as the Cours Honoré d'Estienne d'Orves which has a good selection of restaurants for al fresco dining away from the hustle and bustle of the main roads and shopping streets. We actually stayed just behind this square in the Ibis Budget (formerly Etap) hotel, which I wouldn't recommend if you're after a luxurious city break but the location was fantastic. Standard French and Mediterranean fare can be found at most of the restaurants here, such as huge goat's cheese salads, pizzas and local beers. However, a tiny bistro-cum-rotisserie on the corner of the square called Chez Cocotte offered something a little more special. 

When open, the bistro is instantly recognisable by its handful of pretty wicker tables for drinking and dining en terrasse and a rotisserie oven outside the door with its slowly rotating whole roast chickens. A few simple blackboard menus are propped up on the front steps, serving different combinations of home cooked meals throughout the day. We visited Chez Cocotte a couple of times, starting with their menu of specialty eggs and breakfasts on offer each morning. We tried the breakfast l'Anglais, with none of the smirking I got in Paris when I ordered le rosbif (roast beef), merely for a change from pastries after two weeks of French breakfasts, and ended up loving it. Served on slate, it included proper bacon, a fried egg, English muffins, and a mini pot of jam to slather on our 'toast', which was actually some very hard pieces of grilled French stick. We told the proprietor how much we liked it and she was thrilled, admitting how much she enjoys eating a good English breakfast when in the UK. 

On our second visit we were exhausted from a day of sightseeing and only made it as far as Chez Cocotte, just a few doors down from our hotel, drawn in by the tantalising aromas coming from the poulet roti. Yet another very friendly waitress talked us through the evening menu: a simple selection of 'eggs different ways', baked local cheese and salad starters, followed by the famous rotisserie chicken. We opted for a chicken, chosen by size from the oven, sliced clean in half and served with spicy, herby potato wedges and some thick mayo. It was another good choice: the hearty portion of crispy skin, buttery, well-seasoned and tender meat was delicious. 

Our final day in Marseille was spent attempting to get even closer to the amazing sea views and away from the hot city streets and constant dust and noise created by the waterfront building development. When we first arrived the view across the Vieux Port and the azure sea beyond was enough to satisfy our desires for a glimpse of the seaside. But as our trip drew to a close, and the heat of the sun got hotter and hotter, I was itching to find the perfect beach from which to dive into the glistening, blue sea and cool down. On our search we found the next best thing. 

The coastal road, known as la Corniche and leading south from the Vieux Port of Marseille to its more affluent neighbourhoods and the Prado seaside park, provides sensational views out to sea and a dozen tiny restaurants, some with ancient bains de mer where, for a small fee, you can lounge on a sunbed beneath the sea wall and slip into the sea from the rocks when the heat gets too much. Some of these restaurants are rather pricey but we stumbled upon a simple restaurant serving fresh fish on a gorgeous little terrace literally hanging off the edge of the Corniche with nothing but blue sea and sky in all directions. We spent a happy couple of hours at Le Petit Pavillon enjoying the piece and quiet, soaking up the idyllic Mediterranean views, and hungrily tucking into beautiful moules and grilled sardines with glasses of chilled, crisp white wine. 

No trip to Marseille is complete without a visit to les îles du Frioul, a mostly uninhabited archipelago located just 4km from the city's coast which can be reached by regular ferry from the Vieux Port, so this is how we chose to round off our trip. The largest of the islands, Frioul, is a rugged landscape of abandoned military buildings and forts and can be explored in its entirety in less than an hour. The hidden coves and calanques, rocky cliffs, sea kale and wildlife, seem a million miles away from the city gleaming in the distance. 

The best beach for sunbathing, swimming and a spot of lunch is a sheltered cove to the south-east of the island. It is a tiny sandy cove with beautiful clear waters, overlooked by a row of huts that we thought had long been forgotten about. As lunchtime approached, however, the beach briefly came to life. Lifeguards arrived and hung out at the old station hut, chatting and making radio calls; a small shack at the top of the beach opened up and propped a handwritten sign by the counter listing drinks and snacks; and a group of school children arrived to disturb our peaceful sunbathing. Time for lunch.   

We camped out at the beach shack, its terrace simply furnished with white plastic patio furniture and a canopy fashioned from an army net. We ordered steak frites which came served in a baguette wrapped in paper, smothered in vinegary ketchup, and washed down with mini cans of Heineken beer, all for about 9 euros. It transported me back to beach holidays in France as a teenager, asking dad to buy us beers and chips from the 'kiosk' at Vias Plage. Une fin parfaite. 

Et vous, where do you like to eat out in Marseille? 

Read more about visiting Marseille and restaurant reviews of Le Carbone, Le Bistrot a Vin and
Le Bouchon Provençal.

You might also like to visit: Saint Valery, Paris, Sarlat (Dordogne).  

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