Yorkshire has its pudding, Peking its duck, and Jerusalem its artichoke. But Marseille and its bouillabaisse… ah, that's a different kettle of fish. The ancient city and the culinary world's most celebrated kettle of fish are inseparable soulmates. In richness, complexity and intensity, the character of one is reflected in the other. Bouillabaisse is Marseille… Marseille itself a bouillabaisse. Each a satisfying melting pot.
Mere mention of bouillabaisse puts all the pleasure senses on full alert. Rich in mystique and generosity and flavour. Redolent of sun and sea, romance and culture. Provence distilled in a copper pot. Burnished with the same gold and ochre and terracotta with which Cézanne, Braque and Renoir captured the Provence landscape. Precious, too, in the sense that it is endangered. And in the fact that its pedigree is enhanced by its humble beginnings. Bouillabaisse was nothing more than a stew made by poor fishermen to use up the leftovers from their day's catch. The small bony rockfish rejected by market customers remain the basis of the authentic bouillabaisse.
Every day, among the market trestles erected alongside Marseille's Vieux-Port harbour, chefs such as Christian Buffa from the Michelin-rated Le Miramar sort through the best of the John Dory, monkfish, red mullet, gurnard and rainbow wrasse. But just as precious to them are the conger eel and the rascasse and chapon - the bony little rockfish that give bouillabaisse so much of its flavour and texture, and all of its integrity. Alas, the Mediterranean fishermen are not top of the class at sustainable fishing and catches of the essential varieties are now inconsistent.
Buffa, a graduate of the kitchens of Paul Bocuse, is one of the 11 signatories to the Marseille Bouillabaisse Charter, a commitment to respecting the traditions of the bouillabaisse from specific ingredients to presentation rituals. The selection of correct ingredients of the best quality, plus the long and painstaking preparation, makes today's bouillabaisse an expensive dish. While plenty of local restaurants offer bouillabaisse across a wide range of prices, it is unlikely that you are getting the real deal if you pay less than $89. Remember, though, that this is a meal rather than a dish. First the soup, then the fish. At the top-of-the-range Le Petit Nice - a three Michelin-star establishment - the flamboyant Gérald Passédat commands $240 for his bouillabaisse menu topped and tailed by an amuse bouche plate and a green apple sorbet. The peasant fisherman's ragoût has come a long way, baby.
Marseille itself has come a long way, too. With 2600 years of history, it's the oldest French town and, today, second in size only to Paris. History, it seems, starts with the Phoenecians who arrived in 600BC, and rather ignores the Ligurians already living there. Taken over by the Greeks in 540BC and conquered by the Romans 2000 years ago, its antiquity is palpable.
The diverse elements that have gone into creating the character of Marseilles - like the saffron, fennel, garlic and olive oil which create the vibrancy in bouillabaisse - have bred a streak of defiant independence in the Marseillais. Their city may be the oldest in France but it is also the most un-French. If Paris is a catwalk model, Marseille is a front-row forward - in-your-face, edgy, full of attitude. It's also a city of culture and style… but again, expresses its own mood. While Paris might swoon to the no-regrets sentimentality of Edith Piaf, this place sashays to a fusion of adopted rhythms - jazz, folk, reggae, salsa, zouk and Afrobeat - as well as classical and operatic.
Marseille is as much an ethnic bouillabaisse as any city in Europe. No city in Western Europe has a higher proportion (about a quarter) of Muslims. In the busy, chaotic quarter of Noailles, immigrants from Algeria, Morocco and Senegal crowd impromptu markets in back alleys. It's a stone's throw from the historic centre of the city. But no one's throwing stones.
In this regard, the city might not have been so much a mixing pot as a pressure cooker, yet its model of multi-culturalism seems to have bred admirable tolerance. The city recently earmarked $14 million to build a grand mosque. Suzanne Stemmler, a French studies expert focusing on youth culture in Marseille, says: "If France is a racist country, this must be its liberated zone."
During the latter part of the 20th century, Marseille experienced a sharp downturn in its economy. Streets, housing and infrastructure became rundown, and a reputation for street crime damaged its tourist appeal. Today, however, there's a palpable sense of a reborn Marseille, and a new vision and new investment is already showing dividends in billowing civic pride. The emblematic link between Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe, Marseille was the obvious location for a major urban redevelopment created as an initiative of the Euroméditerranée Organisation for Euro-Mediterranean Development. The project embraces around 150 hectares of the city and will restore one of the great monuments of French architecture - the Baron Haussmann-designed Rue de la République. The kilometre-long boulevard, with its impressive Napoleon III buildings, will regain its prestige as a chic address for apartments and retail outlets. The Euroméditerranée vision for commercial, cultural and civic redevelopment is revitalising Marseille and, with names such as Zaha Hadid, Yves Lion, Jean Nouvel and Rudy Ricciotti involved, the new face of Marseille is assured of being as compelling as the old.
It's still the old, however, that enchants today's visitors. The hub of Marseille life is the picturesque Vieux-Port (or Old Port) guarded by its ancient forts: the 12th-century Fort St-Jean on the north bank, and on the south, Fort St-Nicolas, built by Louis XIV to give him control over the rebellion supporting the independence of Marseille. The fort remains resolute to this day. Then again, so does the spirit of independence.
Antiquity and indulgence are seldom close neighbours, but the city's flagship hotel - Sofitel Marseille Vieux-Port - stands between the two forts in what must be one of the world's greatest hotel locations. It gazes down the old harbour, embracing a view that over the years inspired artists such as Cézanne, Dufy and Monticelli. The panorama stretches from the hilltop basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde to the fishing village of L'Estaque, still a prime location for artists and filmmakers.
The grandeur of the hotel site is supported by the fact that it shares the gardens of Napoleon III's old imperial palace - the Pharo - now a convention centre. Leading French decorator Jean Quesneville recalls the empathy between Provence and the sea throughout the hotel and its 131 stylish rooms. Chef Dominique Frérard does the same with conspicuous success in his menus for the hotel's highly acclaimed Les Trois Forts restaurant.
The old harbour's seawall at Quai des Belges is the site of France's most charming fish market. Michelin-ranked chefs and housewives pick over the day's catch with the same keen sense of discrimination. And among the tables of glistening mackerel and monk-fish, old women sell aromatic herbs and spices, exotic condiments, even live escargots flavoured by a diet of Provençal herbs.
Downtown shopping activity revolves around the famous avenue of La Canebière, the huge Centre Commercial Bourse shopping centre, and Rue Saint-Ferréol - a long pedestrian mall running south of La Canebière that is seven-day-a-week retail mania.
North of Vieux-Port is the old district of Le Panier, over the years home to successive waves of penniless immigrants and now a magnet for cashed-up tourists. Greeks settled here in 600BC, and everyone who subscribes to the belief that there's no beauty without decay falls in love with its narrow lanes, steep stairways, old pastel-coloured houses and little bars that reek of pastis. The place has become discreetly fashionable without the agony of gentrification.
Guilt-free trendiness is centred on Le Cours Julien and La Plaine. These see-and-be-seen locales for the leisured classes present a carefully studied bohemian air with pavement cafés, fashion, design and music shops, squares and fountains. La Plaine market on Thursday and Saturday mornings is hyper-popular and offers delicious glimpses of the rich and respectable engaged in a feeding frenzy over 'tombé du camion' (fallen-off-the-back-of-a-truck) bargains… a popular retail activity in Marseille.
While most tourists are happy to overlook their pledge to the church while travelling, they'd be much poorer for bypassing Notre-Dame de la Garde which beams benevolently over the city from its hilltop perch. This is the finest vantage point from which to admire today's vibrant city and to enjoy glimpses of its earlier entity. But nothing prepares the visitor for the impact of this remarkable basilica's interior. A simple chapel was built here in the 13th century, but its spectacular Romanesque-Byzantine extravagance was not completed until 1899.
It was once common for fishermen to have their boats blessed and so models of fishing craft hang from the ornate ceiling. Today, the old plaques praying for the safety and bountiful catches of the fishermen extend to one praying for the success of Olympique de Marseille - the local football team that enjoys fanatical community support.
Running south from the Vieux-Port area towards the Calanques and the fishing port of Cassis is the fashionable Corniche, a scenic coastal road and pedestrian promenade. To its right is the Mediterranean and the islands of Frioul and Château d'If, where fiction's Count of Monte Cristo and the French Revolution's Honoré Mirabeau were both imprisoned. To the left are expensive restaurants and prohibitive villas. It's a dilemma for the sightseer.
The spectacular Calanques look like something the Greeks brought with them all those centuries ago. Bleached limestone cliffs plunge vertically into sapphire seas along a coastline corrugated by mysterious coves, a few of which shelter tiny fishing communities. You need to pinch yourself - or get a frisky Marseillais to do it for you - to realise that this is not Corfu. And the prevailing sense of siesta, the somnolence of all-day card games, and the much more serious business of eating and drinking, just adds to the deception.
The Marseille foodscape reinforces the fact that Provence has always been a place you taste as well as see. They don't tell you to have a nice day here - they wish you an excellent appetite. It's the Michelin chefs who are making a killing in Marseille these days, not the drug bosses. And there's a galaxy of Michelin stars twinkling around the town.
Dining at Gérald Passédat's Le Petit Nice is grand opera. Passédat's restaurant was the only new three-star entry in the 2008 Michelin Guide, and he's not taking it lightly. The restaurant is a beautiful neo-Greek villa that has been in the family for three generations. It looks out over the Mediterranean… and so does Passédat when he's not in the kitchen. He has a spiritual attachment to the sea - almost an obsession - and a deep respect for the ocean environment.
It repays him, too, but he can convince you that the $355 you pay for his menu découverte de la mer (seafood discovery menu) helps elevate respect for the fish and for responsible fishing. The starring role of this menu goes to a fillet of sea bass steamed at a low temperature and decorated with ribbons of zucchini and truffle. When the covered dish is opened, a bouillon of truffle and coriander is added. Pilgrims to his altar faint right away. Passédat doesn't mind comparisons with the great artists who could distinguish between the necessary and the superfluous, but his dishes are not stark. "The sea has a rhythm and so should seafood dishes," he says. "I like to create a subtle, rhythmic interplay between tastes and textures."
Overlooking the Vieux-Port, one-star Lionel Lévy's La Virgule offers a totally different experience. This is bistro-Michelin: young, relaxed, informal, accessible, terrific value. Lévy is to cuisine what Alexander McQueen is to couture - highly respected but brave enough to remain a little bit funky. Lévy's creations are ingenious and always a little playful. How about his fish crumble? Raw sea bass marinated in ginger, garlic, orange and lime zest with a crumble topping of cream, brown sugar and garlic. The three-course menu du jour is just $48 and wine prices are also realistic. Service is assured, and so is success.
A personal favourite, though - and I'm encouraged to find I share the sentiment with Rick Stein - is the one-star L'Epuisette located at the end of a jetty at the postcard fishing village of Vallon des Auffes. Just 15 minutes from the centre of Marseille, it seems even closer to heaven once chef Guillaume Sourrieu starts displaying his finesse. Stein says Sourrieu presents the finest bouillabaisse in France - and therefore the world - but his own ideas and his instincts are better displayed elsewhere on the menu. In dishes such as gazpacho of zucchini and mint served with goat's milk cream and fresh sardine fritters; and salt cod with a purée of tomatoes and cod roe, plus an artichoke and thyme fricassée; he ties together the produce, seasons, moods and spirit of Provençal cuisine. Floor service and wine recommendations are impeccable.
The diverse races and religions that have complicated Marseille's history are something of a potpourri - to pluck from the Provençal - and that's what flavours both the culinary and the cultural experience of a totally absorbing destination.