Marseille, France: Armed with a fork
Strolling through Marseille’s Vieux Port, you’ll feel the onset of hunger pangs. The cause? Restaurants arranged on the north edge of the harbour. No matter the time, the picture is usually the same — seats crammed around small tables; the occupants gazing across at a forest of gently bobbing yacht masts.
The restaurants are set to be busier than ever this year, because France’s biggest port is enjoying a moment in the spotlight as one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2013. That this noisy, populous metropolis was felt to be in need of a profile boost usually afforded to lesser-known destinations (Portugal’s Guimarães and Maribor in Slovenia filled the positions in 2012) says a lot about the unflattering light in which Marseille can sometimes be viewed.
Certainly, the city can be misunderstood. It comes armed with neither the in-built cool of Paris, nor the fashionable finesse of Lyon. It’s the wild child among French cities; rough-edged in some corners, rustily industrial in others. It’s also a vibrant melting pot where decades of North African immigration have added Arabic spice to a Gallic recipe.
But amid all this diversity and complexity, the easiest way to peer into Marseille’s soul is to clutch a fork in any of the interlinked districts making up its patchwork-quilt centre.
The Vieux Port, for example, caters to the marina. Prices can be excessively high. But there are gems on Quai du Port.
Le Miramar is an expert at bouillabaisse, Provence’s speciality fish stew, while the meaty dishes at Chez Madie Les Galinettes are equally enticing. Venture east of the port and the image changes. The first time I walked into Rue d’Aubagne, I was sure I’d reached another continent — a pocket of Algeria or Morocco, perhaps. For here, amid the sounds of the souk, I found cluttered stores with dried fruits piled high outside, and eateries like Restaurant Le Mamounia serving thick, sticky couscous.
And then there are the other enclaves: Lively La Plaine, with its loud bars; modern Place Notre-Dame du Mont, home to stylish eateries like Le Goût des Choses, which serves a fine sauteed lamb in honey. Among the steep streets above the marina is Le Panier — a traditionally working-class area (if increasingly gentrified), where watering holes such as Bar des 13 Coins are poky and atmospheric.
The many reasons to visit this year include the nearby limestone gorges of Les Calanques, France’s newest national park; and the freshly opened Musée Regards de Provence, with its Provencal art — part of the 2013 festivities. But food will always be at the heart of its appeal. By Chris Leadbeater
Dublin, Ireland: Homegrown food revolution
Archimedes had his ‘Eureka!’ moment in the bath; mine strikes on a banquette, just as I plunge my fork into a king scallop crowned with egg butter mousse.
I’m sitting in Fade Street Social, a hot blur of cool customers, exposed brick and quirky tapas at the heart of Dublin’s creative quarter. Combining a restaurant, wine bar and gastro lounge into a retro-slick sequence of spaces is nothing new, of course (were it not for the bog oak on the wall, I could be in Mitte or Manhattan). But the revelation here isn’t the place itself — it’s on the plate.
After my scallop, I dip into a skillet of slow-braised beef and Guinness stew with oyster cream. I chew a wood-fired flatbread topped with pumpkin, pulled pork, Irish mozzarella and chestnut shavings. Also on the menu are Wexford sirloin and Wicklow lamb; there are earthy sides like ‘spuds’ and ‘seasonal micro vegetables’. Homegrown ingredients, dishes and methods are everywhere. It’s the moment Irish cuisine went mainstream.
Unlike Archimedes, I don’t run naked down the streets (my celebrations are restrained to a consideration of the bread-and-butter pudding). After all, this isn’t a moment of genius — or even a genius restaurant. It’s just that, in a city that for so long pandered slavishly to global trends, it’s bloody exciting to watch.
Right now, after all, Dublin should be in a fug of depression. After a brutal economic implosion, the city could have gone into its shell. But it hasn’t. New openings like 777 are playing in the space between restaurants and cocktail bars. At Bite, I can start the night with a risotto of lobster and squid, and end it with a Stephens Green — a cocktail of kiwi ‘muddled’ with sugar, vanilla vodka and apple juice. In The Greenhouse, Finnish chef Mickael Viljanen plates up Nordic-Irish riffs resembling mini Jackson Pollock paintings. In Hatch & Sons, devour a floury Waterford blaa (roll) stuffed with spiced beef, Coolea farmhouse cheese and onion relish. It’s a reboot of a traditional Irish kitchen in a Georgian basement.
Of course, not every new opening clicks. Dublin will never be a New York or a Berlin. But at least it knows that. By digging deep into the Irish larder, it’s come up with a foodie scene that’s creative, cost-conscious and even — whisper it — a little bit sexy.
This city took a bath. But it’s come out with a revelation. By Pól Ó Conghaile
Puglia, Italy: Olives, oil & sagre
I’m sure they’ve got my order wrong. I’m in Ristorante La Nicchia in Alberobello, and I’ve asked for an antipasto — Italy’s ubiquitous starter platter, which normally comprises cold cuts, plus maybe a few canned olives. Yet here, plate after plate appears: rich, stewed tomato, a slab of omelette, braised aubergines, broad bean puree… It’s a meal in itself, and it’s only when the bill comes I’m sure I haven’t been had.
Welcome to Puglia, the heel to Italy’s boot — a place where small-scale farmers plant the rich, red soil with vegetables and olives; where local food is the norm, not a movement; and where veggies are often the main event — as I learn from my antipasto experience.
Inland from Bari, the Valle d’Itria area is not only home to villages of trulli — traditional, conical-roofed stone houses — it’s an agrarian idyll, with vineyards sprinkled over rumpled hills, and pigs, cows and horses sharing fields.
But the main crop is the olive; there are trees at every turn, wrinkled by age and sun. Some groves are tended by sheep, with the nearest farmhouse selling their cheese. Others have salad leaves planted between the tree roots.
Olive oil is such a serious business here that Masseria Torre Coccaro, a hotel in the midst of an ancient grove, uses its oil for spa massages. In Ostuni, a hilltop town whose whitewashed buildings gleam, is Cosmetici dell’Uliveto — a shop selling olive-derived cosmetics.
At Il Frantolio di D’Amico, a farm outside the medieval town of Cisternino, an array of olive oils are classed by farming method, number of pressings, olive type… Handed a slab of crusty bread, I mop up free samples.
Sagre (food festivals) are common here too (there’s a sagra for everything from octopus to meatballs), and most hotels grow their own produce. Meat is sourced locally and the fish practically flip from the sea onto your plate.
I sit in a makeshift gazebo perched over the Adriatic at Forcatella, a tiny sickle of grey sand near Fasano, eating spaghetti with orange ricci (sea urchins), washed down with slugs of red from a jug. The setting is rough and ready at La Locanda del Riccio, but the food is memorable. Next time, I’ll try the antipasto. By Julia Buckley
Ristorante La Nicchia: www.ristorantelanicchia.it
Masseria Torre Coccaro: www.masseriatorrecoccaro.com
Cosmetici dell’Uliveto: www.facebook.com/cosmeticidelluliveto
Il Frantolio di D’Amico: www.ilfrantolio.it
Read more in the May/Jun 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)