Enjoying everything fishy in Marseille

When a magazine assignment took us to Catalunya last fall, we decided to extend our trip by taking a train to Marseille. After all, it was the only one of the three great port cities of the western Mediterranean that we didn’t already know and love. Its history is deeply entwined with Barcelona and Naples. What Marseille has that the others lack is a long slot harbor where small vessels are well-sheltered from the weather. Le Vieux Port (“old port”) forms the picturesque waterfront of historic Marseille.

stepping off a fishing boat at Quai des Belges fish market in MarseilleThe anchorages here primarily host pleasure craft, but every morning small one- and two-man fishing boats—primarily seiners and trawlers—tie up at the Quai des Belges and unload their overnight catch. In many cases, the fishermen’s wives meet the boats at the quai. They wrestle big polyethylene tubs of fish onto display tables, set up scales and cash boxes, and sell to all comers. Buyers range from Marseille householders planning dinner to chefs from the waterfront restaurants picking up that evening’s catch of the day. We saw a restaurateur snatch up an entire tub of hake before the fisherman could even get it to a table. Others were shopping for the assortment of fish to make Marseille’s famous (and expensive) bouillabaisse. We saw it as a chance to familiarize ourselves with the likely dinner menu.

Varied catch shows health of fishery

mollusk seller at Quai des Belges fish market in MarseilleNot all the catch necessarily comes off boats. The older woman at left hopped from a van and wheeled her shellfish into the market in a home shopping cart. Setting up on a small folding table, she sold whelks, cockles, and limpets that she had gathered in the intertidal zone. She chalked her prices—€2-3 per kilo—onto small squares of slate.

The catch can be surprisingly different from boat to boat, reflecting the general health of the Mediterranean in this part of Provence. One boat may only have small tuna that the fisherman cuts into steaks, while another will land big tubs of red mullet. Another may have small sea bass and a version of ocean perch, while yet another may have caught nothing but mackerel. Some vessels that have been out longer may have catches from different spots—tubs of beautifully mottled squid, a couple of kinds of flounder, and a rainbow of silvery mackerel and plump golden gilthead bream.

The fish market operates daily from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m.

variety of fish at Quai des Belges fish market in Marseille

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