Marseille is a place of contradictions. While it is in the middle of a bold urban renewal project to become a major Mediterranean center, its notorious reputation as a tempestuous, scruffy and poorly-groomed city continues unabated. Hidden behind this coarse character, however, are interesting places long favored by the bourgeoisie. It is easy to pass by, hardly noticing these discreet and unassumming venues if you don’t know what to look for. Here is a small selection of Marseille’s open secrets located in one tiny patch of the Vieux Port.
La Boutique du Glacier. Unless you are an old-timer Marseillais, this little sanctuary of gentility can be completely overlooked. Perhaps its loyal clientele likes it that way. For decades, Marseille’s bourgeoisie has gathered here for morning coffee, light lunches and afternoon tea breaks. The modest café – much smaller now than when my relatives first introduced me to it in the early 1970s – is a third-generation family enterprise. In front of the shop, just off the Canèbiere, is a nostalgic childrens’ carousel that has been in continuous operation since the late 1700s. La Boutique du Glacier opened its doors in the 1950s as a pâtisserie-café and quickly gained popularity for their fluffy croissants, ice-cream cakes, pastries and ice-creams and sherbets made with fresh, ripe fruits.
Recently, my cousin suggested that I try their croque monsieur. I did and it is heavenly. It’s made with thin, feather-light bread, fine butter, ham and cheese and toasted just right. A bite in your mouth simply melts away. La Boutique du Glacier offers a light formule for less than 10€. It includes a savory pastry, a dessert, beverage (perhaps a freshly pressed juice), and aromatic coffee. The current owner is the grandson of the founder. His son, the newest generation, works in the shop between school breaks. A brother operates the branch in Aix en Provence.
La Boutique du Glacier, 1 Place du Général de Gaulle
The Provençal emphasis on strong family ties and values is demonstrated by the fact that Marseille has an astonishing number of enterprises that carry on generation after generation. Two of them, dating back to the early 1800s, stand out as major institutions. They are cherished for the genuine sense of culture, stability and continuity they impart to their patrons:
Maison Empereur is France’s oldest quincaillerie (hardware store). The Marseillais love to browse the wares on the same old wooden shelves that have been there forever, climb up the worn-out stairs and have pleasant conversations with the staff, an important aspect of the store’s philosophy. Founded in 1827 by François Empereur, a maker of cutting tools, the business prospered and has remained in the same family since its inception. It was first located near the Bourse, and moved to its present location on rue d’Aubagne in 1845. Today, an exotic North African bazaar surrounds it. The shop is an old-fashioned, one-stop general store having changed little over its long life, except for some recent renovations upstairs. It is a treasure trove for everything from rare hardware items, batterie de cuisine, household items, soaps, gardening paraphenalia, old-fashioned toys and much more.
Maison Empereur, 4 rue des Récolettes/rue d’Aubagne
Herbs and Provence seem to go hand-in-hand and the legendary Herberisterie du Pére Blaize is a world of pure authenticity from the original decor to the products and the people providing services. In 1815 herbalist Toussaint Blaize opened shop and today it is run by his sixth generation descendant. The herbal pharmacy is located on a small grungy-looking alley around the corner from Maison Empereur. In the 40-plus years that I have visited this place, nothing has changed (or at least not visibly), and 40 years before that it was the same, and before that too. This was the home of current owner Martine Bonnabel-Blaize’s great grandfather; her grandfather was born there and she grew up playing around the old wooden counters.
The great-granddaughter of the founder is a pharmacist working with a team of about a dozen employees including two other pharmacists, all herbal specialists on the cutting edge of their field. They prepare compounds for medical prescriptions and offer expertise to customers on the proper uses of their more than 800 therapeutic herbs and cosmetics, teas and essential oils from across the globe. Potentially one of the top herberisteries in the world, this is a busy place with customers ranging in age from 20s to 90s.
Herberisterie Père Blaize, 4 rue Meolan
From Rue Meolan, turn left at Cours St. Louis and you will be on Rue Vacon, a short street. Walking toward Rue Paradis you will come to a confectionary shop named Nouchig, esteemed for their dragèes; exquisite packaging for special events; and cadeaux gourmand.
Nouchig is a French-Armenian family-owned business established in 1990. “Nouchig” means ‘little almond’ in Armenian. These, however, are not your ordinary sugar-coated nuts. Nouchig dragèes are made with two almond varieties – from Siracuse (balanced-woody-bitter) and from Catalogne (soft-light-crunchy) – thinly coated with various types of best-quality 70% chocolate, and further napped with a fine yet crunchy sugar coat in 24 luscious colors. The dragées à la pâte de fruits are popular children’s treats. Provençal selections of calissons, as well as candied and glazed fruits and chestnuts are also in Nouchig’s repertoire.
What is not immediately evident is that Nouchig is the only place in France, outside of Paris, that carries the celebrated chocolates of Fabrice Gillotte, one of France’s most decorated chocolatiers. Gillotte holds the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France (best chocolatier) and is a six-time winner of the prize, Grand Mâitre Chocolatier Français (2008-2013).
Nouchig, 45 rue Vacon
Now, as every Marseillais knows, the best pizzas in the world are found right here in Marseille. Yes, it’s a bold statement but I, like the Marseillais, stand firmly by it.
Ever since Sauveur di Paola introduced Neapolitan-style pizzas to Marseille in 1943, the popularity of this dish has never stopped growing and evolving. Superb Mediterranean ingredients, Italian mastery and French flair… how can you beat that?
The restaurant he opened, Chez Sauveur, continues to hold the distinction as Marseille’s best pizzeria. It is a graffiti-covered, hole-in-the-wall on the corner, across from Maison Empereur. The current chef Fabrice Giacalone retains the original secrets handed down by di Paola, as the story goes. Why not try a local specialty with Corsican Figatelli sausage, Marseille-style goat cheese called La Brousse, mozzarella, fresh tomato and garlic? Its ideal mate is the delicious, light Marseille beer, La Cagole. Bon appetit!
Chez Sauveur, 10 rue d’Aubagne (dining room upstairs)
Dorothy Garabedian is a retired, expat American (born in Rhode Island, raised in central California) living in Germany and now devoting her time to writing on travel, culture and lifestyle. She has traveled around the world and lived in Uruguay and the European cities of Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, and Moscow. Read more of her work on her blog, Detours and Diversions.