on julia child, fish, & the port of marseille
One of the pleasures of visiting Marseille is visiting the fish market on the Vieux Port. It is small. When fishing was a prominent part of the local economy, the market was much larger and more bustling than it is today. Several boats do go out in the early morning and return with good catches that are then sold from tables set up along the wharf.
The buyers are primarily locals, home cooks. They buy small quantities of a kilo or two. Restaurants rely on fresh catches but have sources other than the market on the Port.
In another time, the fish mongers would be hawkers as well. They would shout out the catch of the day and the prices. That does not happen much today. I have occasionally heard, however, a shout rise above the din to encourage a buy before the good bargains are gone.
Julia Child and her husband Paul moved to Marseille in the early 1950’s. They lived in an apartment next to the Vieux Port. She recounted her experiences there in her biography My Life in France. She wrote about how astonished she was to hear the hubbub below, when the boats came into the port with their catch-of-the-day. Below is the account she gave. It is quoted from My Life in France.
One evening in May, we heard a lot of excited shouting from the street below. The fishing fleet had gotten into a big run of tuna. Boats kept pulling up to the quay just outside, and until midnight there was continuous shouting and the wet Smack! Smack! Smack! of heavy fish being heaved off the boats onto the stones below, then reheaved into trucks packed with ice. While the run was on, the fishermen just kept going all day and night. It was a beautiful scene to look down on from our balcony at night—thousands of flashing silver tuna, all about the same size, slithering this way and that in blood-pinkened water under the arc lights, while big bow-legged guys in sou’wester pants and bare feet lifted and pushed with a sort of primal urgency.
I couldn’t resist, and bought a big slice of tuna, its flesh bright red. The market ladies said to soak it in vinegar and water, to avoid an overly fishy taste, which I did for five hours. The flesh turned almost white. Then I braised it with a purée de tomates, oignons étuvés à l’huile, champignons, vin blanc, and quelques herbes. Marvelous! (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
I especially loved the open-air market near the Rue de Rome, and the Criée aux Poissons, the wholesale market on the Vieux Port. There must have been ten million brilliantly colored little swimmers there, many of them native only to these waters. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
The curious, tourists, photographers, children get in the way. There is competition for the space around the fish mongers. Generally, they are congenial. They know they cannot control who is there. People want to buy fish, but occasionally someone thrusts a camera over the fish and delays the transaction. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
The fish market happens, of course, in the morning. Close to the noon hour, most of the transactions have already transpired and the tables are taken apart and some of the fish, not sold, will be put on ice and offered the next day (I believe). (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)