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 harbour 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 neighbourhood, 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 flavour to speak for itself, but their infusion of wild cep mushrooms had an impressive burst of earthy woodland flavour).
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 per cent olive oil, it’s a bath fit for an ancient Greek.