When Food Brings Back a Moment
Remembering Marseille through cooking
Marseille is my favorite food city. The place has so much that I love: tagine and leblebi, North African spice markets and dockside fish markets, great pizza shops, the orange-glazed Corsican cheesecake ‘fiadone,’ and the saffron-laced fisherman’s stews for which it is famous.
Two winters ago, my wife Zoraida and I spent a few days there trying it all — our last international trip — missing the first Covid-related closures by weeks. I’m tempted to go back soon, but, Omicron be damned, I probably won’t. Because the algorithm knows what I’m thinking, photos from that trip keep popping up on my phone.
In one picture, Zoraida places a folded slice of shellfish pizza on her tongue while seated on a rocky outcrop bordering the Mediterranean. She is wearing a blue shirt with big waving ruffles and her curls are in full bloom, backlit by the sun. The photograph floods me with nostalgia.
We went to eat bouillabaisse for lunch that day at the legendary seaside restaurant Chez Michel, but it was either full or closed. So, we hung around by the beach for a while, watched boxers work out to French hip-hop, and then strolled the coast for a long time. We found a pizzeria in the old fisherman’s village, Vallons des Auffes, ordered that mixed shellfish pizza and one beer and brought it to the the rocky shore where we shared it silently, then reclined, limbs tangled, and listened to the water lap against a pair of wooden fishing boats in the cove beside us. It was sublime.
When I think about going back to Marseille, It’s really that moment that I want to return to, though we had excellent food throughout the city.
Our experiences of food have everything to do with setting, but we can do our best to tease out the enchantment of other times and places in our own kitchens. In lieu of a trip, here are four recipes that I made this week from Mark’s books that reminded me of Marseille.
Makes: 4-6 servings
Time: 1 hour (with prepared lobster stock)
This recipe doesn’t keep to the strictures of the Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter, but it is the best version you can make without smuggling in some of the hideous, venomous, (and tasty) rockfish ‘rascasse.’
Good olive oil, as needed
4 to 8 thick slices good bread
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 celery stalks, trimmed and chopped
1 carrot, trimmed and chopped
1 medium new potato, peeled and chopped
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and chopped
¼ teaspoon saffron, optional
3 cups lobster or fish stock
2 cups chopped tomatoes, with their juice (canned are O.K.)
Salt and pepper
1 to 1 ½ pounds chopped boneless fish and shellfish, preferably a variety
8 littleneck clams
2 sea scallops
2 tablespoons Pernod or other pastis, optional
Chopped fennel fronds, for garnish
Chopped basil or parsley, for garnish
1. Heat oven to 400°F. Brush bread liberally with olive oil, and bake on a sheet, turning once, until golden and crisp, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
2. Add enough olive oil to a Dutch oven, deep skillet or shallow pot to make a thick layer (don't skimp) on the bottom. In it, cook onion, garlic, celery, carrot, potato, fennel and saffron until glossy. Add stock and tomato and bring to a moderate boil; cook until thick and stewy rather than soupy. Season to taste; it should be so delicious that you don’t even care whether you add fish.
3. Lower heat to a simmer, and, as you add fish, adjust heat so that the liquid continues to bubble gently. Add fish in order of how long they will take to cook. Monkfish, striped bass and squid are fish that might require more than a few minutes, so add them first. About five minutes later add clams and mussels, holding back any fish that has been cooked or will cook in a flash. When mollusks open, add remaining fish. Cut scallops into quarters and place in the bottom of 4 bowls.
4. Add pastis if you're using it; taste and adjust seasoning. Ladle hot soup and fish over the scallops, distributing clams and mussels evenly. Garnish and serve with croutons and rouille, if you're using.
— Recipe from How to Cook Everything