`Marseille and the History of Olive Oil - Olive Oil Times

Marseille and the History of Olive Oil

Jun. 10, 2010
Will Dunn

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Marseille has always been a place of out­siders. France’s old­est city was founded by the Greeks more than two and a half thou­sand years ago, and it has relied on immi­gra­tion to pro­vide new trade and new life ever since. There were the Romans, the Visigoths, the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. More recently, Italians came seek­ing a bet­ter life after the Second World War, and large num­bers of Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians arrived from the for­mer colonies. They all con­tributed to Marseille’s unique char­ac­ter, some­thing you can taste from the moment you arrive: look past the tourist restau­rants sell­ing bouil­l­abaisse, and you’ll find the real foods of Marseille are pizza and cous cous.

Even the city’s founders so long departed are still present, in a way, at every table – for it was the Greeks who brought olive trees to the region. In doing so, they changed Europe for­ever.

Other than lit­tle things like democ­racy, Western civ­i­liza­tion and math­e­mat­ics, you could say that this was their big con­tri­bu­tion to the world. The Greeks used olive oil for every­thing, from sauces to light­ing their homes to bathing (like the Romans, they rubbed them­selves with it before scrap­ing it off with a strigil). If it hadn’t been for Greek explor­ers like the Phocaeans, who estab­lished olive groves at all their colonies in France and Spain, the Mediterranean diet wouldn’t have grown up around what Homer called liq­uid gold’, and kitchens world­wide would be poorer for it. Masallia, as it was orig­i­nally called, was founded as a place to trade oil, wine, spices and met­als, and it has remained a place of imports and exports: today, it is one of the largest ports in Europe. As the gate­way from the Mediterranean to the French canal sys­tem, Marseille was the point through which all the olive oil exported from Spain, Italy, Greece and the Middle East flowed. This north­ward pro­lif­er­a­tion of olive oil has left an indeli­ble mark on mod­ern cui­sine – no Parisian potato would ever have been sautéed, no Dijonnais dress­ing whipped, with­out the oil that was unloaded for cen­turies on the wharves of the Vieux Port.

That grand old har­bor is today a café-lined marina, but you can get an idea of how impor­tant olive oil has been to Marseille by vis­it­ing the Vieux Port and look­ing at the names of the streets. One of the largest – more of a square these days – is the Place aux Huiles (pro­nounced Plasse-owe-Zweeles, if you want to say it like a Marseillais). This wide avenue was once a canal that allowed boats bear­ing olive oil to unload as close as pos­si­ble to the Rue Sainte, where it was made into soap. The canal has since been filled in but the soap con­tin­ues to be made here (thanks to Louis XIV, who decreed in 1688 that only French soaps made here, using olive oil, could be called Savon de Marseille).

It was not just the appetite for olive oil that took root in Marseille; the trees them­selves per­sisted, cre­at­ing an indus­try of their own. France is never going to be the world’s biggest olive oil pro­ducer, but Provençal oils have a unique appeal. Wet, chilly win­ters and blaz­ing sum­mers give the oil a tem­per­ate char­ac­ter – big, fruity and decid­edly rus­tic, they are often a lux­u­ri­ous green. If you like your oil with a touch of the great out­doors, Provence has some cloudy, ver­dant gems to try.


It’s this oil, along with locally-caught seafood, that defines the best of the local cui­sine today. Order an aper­i­tif in any Marseillaise restau­rant worth its salt, and it will be deliv­ered with a few small slices of crusty bread smeared with tape­nade, a paste of olives, olive oil, capers and anchovies. If it’s home-made using local olives and extra vir­gin oil, it often beats the starter.

On the far side of the Vieux Port, on the edge of Marseille’s old­est neigh­bor­hood, Le Panier (‘the bas­ket’, for its shape), you’ll find another Place aux Huiles. This time, though, it’s a shop, and a great place to take a whis­tle-stop tour of local delights: apart from their own oil, a fruity but slightly more del­i­cate ver­sion of clas­sic Provençal huile, there are some beau­ti­ful oils from the AOC regions of Aix-en-Provence, Haute-Provence, Vallée des Baux and Nice. There’s honey from the region, richly scented with the laven­der that grows in vast, shim­mer­ing blue fields near Grasse, and infused oils, too (oil should have enough fla­vor to speak for itself, but their infu­sion of wild cep mush­rooms had an impres­sive burst of earthy wood­land fla­vor).

You can even buy some of Marseille’s local beer, Le Cagole (une cagole is a young woman who, to put it politely, knows how to have fun). And by the counter, in irreg­u­lar stacks of big, dark green blocks, the Savon de Marseille: at 72 per­cent olive oil, it’s a bath fit for an ancient Greek.

Savon de Marseille
Place aux Huiles, 2 Place Daviel, Marseille.

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