Houdini

So after a few hours of walking the streets of Red Hook, Bushwick, and Ridgewood to see how far this ‘gentrification’ everyone bangs on about had gotten, I was delighted to finally find ‘Houdini Kitchen Laboratory‘ on Decatur Street in what looks like a large ex-factory studio complex.  The take-away is that the pizza was decent, soup great.  The reason to go is cultural: this is a very Italian place, in unexpected ways, and a fantastic addition to a benighted area.

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I had just stopped in for a drink at Roberta’s, the avant-garde in Bushwick that is still best-in-class, despite crowds and slightly uber-cool attitude.  Between the two pizza joints was the opportunity, on Myrtle Avenue, to eat lots of fried pig unmentionables, fried plantains, stewed cow unmentionables, and so forth.  I quite carefully missed all that – save it for next time.

Anyway, I had been at Pioneer Works, in Red Hook, another ‘up-and-coming’ – that has no transport links with anything.  It was a fantastic day-long class on Software for Artists and so maybe I had Houdini on the brain.  The subtitle ‘Kitchen Laboratory’ reminded me of the contemporary trend, to bring art, and to a lesser extent, technology, into the restaurant.  Massimo Bottura in Modena is of course the Italian poster-child of this, who has received death-threats for his efforts. He in turn, has been influenced by Wylie Dufresne, Ferran Adria, and countless others, within and outside the molecular gastronomy crowd.

Houdini had, I’m afraid, nothing of the laboratory that I could tell.  It was a good-looking pizzeria in an industrial building.  But this observation serves to introduce my topic: a deconstruction of a pizzeria. Having spent some time in medium/small-town all over Italy, I thought the parallels fascinating – it really has nothing to do with the food.

Negroni: This seemingly simple drink is served in a multitude of ways across Italy – from the vast soda-glass pours of the Veneto that ‘cut like a knife and leave you more dead than alive’ (from The Art of Eating quoting Luca Veronelli, albeit on Sicilian wine) – to the perfection of the most humble Roman bar.  The pricing varies – cheapest has been €4 in Molise, and the national average is €6.  The Houdini version did a great job picking off the worst features of Italian negronis and giving them a NYC-boost: a smallish pour in a very nice glass, with an enormous fat shard of ice that wetted my nose every time I sipped, and, for grip, a fine layer of sticky Campari juice on the outside.  The iceberg is apparently a mixologist’s trope – not content to leave a 96-year-old, adequately functional, recipe alone – trained cocktail bartenders insist on molesting it with ‘barrel-aged bourbon’, fancy vermouths (Cocchi di Torino), and most painfully, massive blocks of ice that never melt.  Anyway, the price at Houdini – keep in mind, in a pretty grim bit of town – was $12.50, which with tax and a presumptive 15% tip, makes it $15.5.  Obviously NYC and Italian prices are totally different, but that gets to €14.35. More comparably, the London equivalent is £10.26, probably the most expensive I’ve had in the UK other than Dukes.

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Lentil Soup: excellent, thin, no fat, not over-salted, basically perfect.  This is a staple of winter cookery across much of North-Central Italy, but particularly well-done in Padova and the cities of Emilia-Romagna.  It’s highest form, in my view, is when the soup is made exclusively of vegetables (a soffrito of carrots and celery, plus good lentils, say of Castelluccio [Umbria]), not relying on porky bits for flavour.

Migration: One of the most interesting, and encouraging, aspects of how Houdini was run was the demographic.  My order was taken by a lady who looked and sounded (in English) Chinese, but who seemed to speak fluent Italian.  The Chinese incursions into Italy are one of the lesser-known success stories of immigration – from textile workers in Tuscany to owners of hotels and cafes stretching from San Remo to the Veneto – they have even spurred a documentary (being in Italy, it’s structured as a reality-TV show).  In the kitchen was a man who was African or African-American, but spoke Italian, I think.  Interestingly, Italian kitchens are rarely staffed by Africans – the kitchen and flower-seller trades are the preserve of South Asians. The clientele was a happy mix of young (white, professional) people, an elderly English couple with perfect cut-glass accents and hair to die for, and, unlike at Roberta’s, a number of (apparently) working-class Hispanic and African-American diners.  My bill came to $50 before tip for 2 drinks, soup and pizza.

That ain't 'nduja

Pizza: The pizza itself was good for Ridgewood, but would be distinctly sub-average in Italy itself.  It was not greasy, nor slathered in nasty cheese.  Yet, for sporting a wood-fired oven, they weren’t getting the best out of it: the dough was not bubbly, chewy, or particularly charred.

Localvore: The idea of making food locally took Brooklyn by storm a few years ago, and has spread to East London, Berlin, etc.  Why it’s a great idea to make basic ingredients (sausage, cheese, wine, etc.) that depend on a particular terroir, and exist in a well-defined cultural context, in cold, wet, snowy cities, is debatable.  Anyway, I ordered ‘nduja on my pizza.  When it arrived, the ‘nduja was basically just spicy crumbly sausage, and tasty too.  I called the owner (dressed in the obligatory distressed, close-fitting, precisely ripped jeans that are the carapace of the some Italian males) over to discuss, and he tried to emphasise proudly that it was home-made, but after I invoked Cosenza, Metaponto, and Reggio Calabria, he admitted it wasn’t ‘nduja at all, because he couldn’t get the spices, pork, or preservatives.  After that, I didn’t dare ask what cow (never mind, buffalo) produces the ‘home-made’ burrata.  Having said all that, they get points for effort.

Lambrusco: To their credit, it was a tart, deeply violet, bubbly drink, pretty much as it should be.

Cash-only: The last small-town Italian giveaway was the cash-only, paid at the front table.  For whatever reason, in a city that almost universally takes cards in any decent restaurant, this was a cash joint – with a ($1.50 charge) cash machine in the back.  No further comment.

Brilliant Corners, Dalston

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I love Tokyo’s ultra-specialised restaurants, from places that only serve sea urchin or fugu fish, to tiny audiophile bars under railroad arches with thousands of dollars worth of kit and records. For whatever reason, London and to a large extent New York, never really picked up into this obsessive groove – probably partially due to real estate prices (not that Tokyo acreage is cheap) and partially, likely lack of custom.

So it’s cheering to see a recent opening in Dalston – Brilliant Corners, (presumably) named after Thelonius Monk album. It’s a venue with 4 massive Klipsch speakers and a rack of old valve amplifiers; customised sound-absorbing wall panels; an awesome selection of natural wines; and very good, albeit simple and reasonably-priced, Japanese food. An odd combination, but the wonderful owners and staff make it work – they’re pumped about what they’re doing and it shows.

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The Dalston & Hackney trendy food scene is pretty grim fare – burgers, somewhat gross American junk-food elevated into haute cuisine (£21 friend chicken), served in supposedly stylish, and utterly undifferentiated, shabby-chic venues, with the obligatory tattooed, characteristically Antipodean, and extravagantly bearded cooks/waitstaff/DJ/owner. Even the acheingly hip Cafe Oto’s food is very much second fiddle to the music, booze, coffee, and cakes. The owners of Brilliant Corners are, I think, ex-City, so a far cry from the slightly ghastly food-world insiders, often backed by cashflow-hungry investors, rolling out series of dismal restaurants that cater to the latest fad (whether it be “tapas”, “no bookings”, “Venetian ciccheti”, “Peru”, “street food”, “artisanal pizza”, “hog roasts”, etc.)

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So it’s great to see Brilliant Corners’ unpretentious menu, cut rolls and hand rolls, chicken kara-age, or donburi on brown rice. No fancy fish, only salmon, which keeps cost down and keeps the “save the sea” brigade happy. The clean flavours work really well with the excellent natural wines; as it happens, a topical tipple – this weekend is RAW’s natural wine fair at the Truman Brewery, with old favourites like Frank Cornelissen, Stan Radikon, and (hopefully) a contingent of mad Georgians.

Standouts from the wine list are Salvo Foti’s gutsy white/gold wine from the shoulders of Etna, and La Stoppa’s orange from Emilia-Romagna, both at £38 by the bottle. A wine I haven’t tried, but described as having “cult status” in Japan, the ultimate accolade in my book, is a Crozes-Hermitage Syrah by Dard & Ribo, at £38. Wines by the glass are a very reasonable £5-6. As with any natural wine, it pays to enquire what the flavour profile will be (“funky”, “barnyard”, “oxidised” are terms often used, rather unflatteringly if enthusiastically, to describe them), and if possible, ask for a taste. At their best, they should have intense flavours in the whites, a tannic grip and enhanced mouthfeel in the oranges, and a fresh grapiness in the reds (at least those based on Gamay). They should be as far as possible from the ghastly mass-market high-alchohol wines endemic to the UK market.

Wine list
Wine list

These aren’t wines for drinking all the time, but they are absolutely worth a try. And….no hangover, owing to the reduced use of sulphites. Anyone living East for a few years will remember the happy 18-month tenure of 259 Hackney Road, that used to sell similar wines, albeit from the Jura or Loire; unfortunately Florian & Milena left, and the wine shop has been replaced by a bubble tea vendor (see “latest fad” above).

Brilliant Corners: 470 Kingsland Road E8 4AE.  Info on Facebook (they don’t seem to have a website)

The Devil in the Hills

The title refers to Cesare Pavese’s novel about life, just following the war, in the hills around Turin. And it is the hills one sees first, coming up from the coast, as we did, from Savona, where the Sanremo-Genoa line splits up through the subalpine valleys.

The Langhe hills between Alba and Barbaresco
The Langhe hills between Alba and Barbaresco
Barbaresco town
Barbaresco town centre

In writing this, we’re indebted to Edward Behr’s awesome the Art of Eating, as well as Fred Plotkin’s magisterial survey of the food of Italy, Italy for the Gourmet Traveller. Both publications, dated as they are, seem invaluable for understanding the food and wine of Italy, and of course, for eating well.

A trip to Piedmont is more about wine than anything. The southern hills, the Langhe, are most famous for the appellations Barolo and Barbaresco, on the southern bank of the Tanaro River. Turin lies an hour away, nestled in its cushion of mountains. The Langhe’s most famous grapes are Nebbiolo (so-called for the fog, nebbia, that blankets these hills), Barbera, and Dolcetto (the “little sweet one”). Nebbiolo sits up there with Sangiovese (the “blood of Jove”), and perhaps, with Aglianico, at least in the opinion of a proud Lucanian, amongst the pantheon of Italian grapes. All the more so because, unlike Pinot Noir or the ubiquitious Cabernets, these vines don’t take easily to the climate, land, or aggressive winemaking of the New World – somehow they mainly flourish in modest bits of Italy.

At Osteria degli Sognatori in Alba.  4 meals in 4 nights...
At Osteria degli Sognatori in Alba. 4 meals in 4 nights…
Carne cruda and, inexplicably, Russian salad
Carne cruda and, inexplicably, Russian salad

To paraphrase Behr, Barolo’s characteristic flavours are “violets, tar, faded roses…leather”, and we’re looking at a pale wine that in age “runs toward orange”. Everywhere in the Langhe, one hears of a division between traditionalist and modernist winemakers, and this goes to the heart of Piemontese winemaking’s 20th-century history. Nebbiolo is a treacherous and fickle grape, autochthonous to Piedmont (first referenced in 1303 AD), highly tannic, phenolic, acidic, and susceptible to frost due to its long ripening period. Its fruit is comparatively delicate. The upshot is that this grape takes at least 3-4 years in the bottle before the tannins soften sufficiently to make it palatable.

A beautiful white made by monks, had in Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)
A beautiful white made by monks, had in Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)
Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)
Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)

So why put up with the temperamental Nebbiolo grape? Because, its high tannin content serves to protect the wine and slow down oxidation, giving it more time in the bottle to age, allowing complexity (so-called “tertiary flavours” such as tar and leather) to develop, which simply don’t show up in wines that are easily drinkable within 1-2 years of production. There are nebbiolo-based wines that are drinkable 40 years on. Unfortunately, the problem in the past was that by the time the wine developed complexity, the, already ephemeral at bottling, fruit and flower flavours tended to disappear. Producers and consumers were stuck between Scylla and Charbydis: youthful harshness versus a dry, fruitless senescence (and we’re talking about the wine here). “There was never a right time to drink the wine. It was always too late for the fruit and too early for the tannin.”

Vitello tonnato at Garibaldi in Bra, home of the Slow Food movement
Vitello tonnato at Garibaldi in Bra, home of the Slow Food movement

La Barbera is simpler: as the most heavily planted in Piedmont, it produces a darker wine without the tannin, but is still acidic, albeit drinkable earlier than Nebbiolo. But the everyday grape of the Langhe is Dolcetto, light and easy drinking, wine for food, but not really a vino de meditazione. It goes well with the rich cuisine, the raw beef, the cheeses, the boar.

Excellent gnocchi with chestnut flour and wild boar ragu.  Ristorante Garibaldi (Bra)
Excellent gnocchi with chestnut flour and wild boar ragu. Ristorante Garibaldi (Bra)

In the 1980s, winemaking in the Langhe started to change. Yields were reduced, and vines were pruned aggressively to ensure the grapes were fully ripe before picking, which seemed to reduce the bitter tannic content and maximise the fruit. The cellar technique was also modified – as grape juice ferments in vats, a dense cap of crushed skins forms; the skins, and therefore this cap, contain flavour and colour, but are also highly tannic. Various producers introduced techniques, such as agitating or puncturing the cap, or increasing fermentation temperature, to extract flavours while minimising tannins. Controversially, some introduced equipment, such as rotofermenters, which prevent a cap from forming at all. Finally, instead of the traditional tall botti grandi, which allowed for a slow oxidation and more controlled development of refined flavour, there was a move towards the barriques of new oak. Aromatics in the oak leached into the wine, giving (in the worst case), a distinct vanilla note, but also helped add sweet tannins to replace the bitter tannins which had been prevented from entering the wine by the methods above. To maximise fruit, the modernists drastically cut the ageing time, to as little as 2 or 3 years.

The cheeses at Garibaldi (Bra).  Notably, the stanky old Castelmagno.
The cheeses at Garibaldi (Bra). Notably, the stanky old Castelmagno.

Still other producers used yet more interventionist methods, such as reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation, and so forth, to achieve a desired flavour profile (in some cases, the so-called “international style” of young, easy-to-drink, fruit-forward wine that is promoted by market forces and wine consultants).

One of the few failed meals - La Finanziera.  Cooking was impeccable - just the ingredients were gross - cockscomb, spinal cord, fried testicles were the more repellent items.  The porcini mushrooms were the only edible bits, but they sort of tasted like the spinal cord too....  In the otherwise excellent Scannabue (Turin).
One of the few failed meals – La Finanziera. Cooking was impeccable – just the ingredients were gross – cockscomb, spinal cord, fried testicles were the more repellent items. The porcini mushrooms were the only edible bits, but they sort of tasted like the spinal cord too…. In the otherwise excellent Scannabue (Turin).

Angelo Gaja of Barbaresco has led the modernist revolution in Piedmont. At the other end are producers such as the Conterno brothers, Giovanni and Aldo, Bruno Giacosa, and Francesco Rinaldi, who have tried to maintain the traditional ways, with their higher production and ageing costs, and therefore higher retail break-evens. As Behr says in his 2001 articles, it’s far from clear how much the differences in methods translate into consistent differences, or values, in the final product, and indeed, many producers use a mix of modern and traditional techniques.

View of Turin from Superga, the hill just outside with a cathedral that houses the royal crypts of Savoy.
View of Turin from Superga, the hill just outside with a cathedral that houses the royal crypts of Savoy.
The cable car up Superga.
The cable car up Superga.

We made a 20km walk, along the banks of the Tanaro, from Alba to Barbaresco, through a boar-hunting zone, hazelnut groves, and acres of treacherous mud. But, in doing so, we got a great sense of the distinctive feel of the Langhe hills, rolling along, seemingly all the way to the Alps (the Matterhorn, known as Monte Cervino, was almost always visible towering over the Val d’Aosta). Most of the properties were quite small, with modest sized compounds, and almost no one about. There was the pervasive smell of roasting hazelnuts, perhaps mixed with chocolate, which is of course the smell of Nutella.

Slade head of sculpture Ed Allington's work in the One Torino city-wide contemporary art event !  Matthew Darbyshire also in the same show.
Slade head of sculpture Ed Allington’s work in the One Torino city-wide contemporary art event ! Matthew Darbyshire also in the same show.
Lawrence Weiner & James Lee Byars at the Castello di Rivoli museum outside Turin.
Lawrence Weiner & James Lee Byars at the Castello di Rivoli museum outside Turin.
Sol Lewitt at Castello di Rivoli
Sol Lewitt at Castello di Rivoli

All this was a quiet and contemplative prelude to Turin, comparatively busy and chaotic, but nothing like Rome or Genoa. Turin, first capital of the united Italy, spent considerable time as part of France, and feels French in its Cartesian orderliness and grid-layout, the relatively reserved people. Although generally perfectly nice, they had little of the sparkle of Venetians, the rough bawdiness of the Romans, or the sly dark wit of the Palermitans, rather the Torinese eyes have a distinct sense of the fish that has been dead for some days. The city itself seems to have fallen on hard times, with the recession and Fiat’s troubles. But what the city lacks in warmth, it makes up for in splendid art: a world-class Egyptian collection, currently being renovated (but with a considerable portion still on display); several contemporary art galleries. Everyone seemed to be reading, and the city was filled with bookstores, things we hadn’t seen in Genoa, Sanremo, or Alba, where the sea, truffles and winemaking happily occupy one.

An awesome dish of pig's blood, at Ristorante Consorzio (Turin), an superb Slow Food place.
An awesome dish of pig’s blood, at Ristorante Consorzio (Turin), an superb Slow Food place.

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Fiat factory with rooftop race-track, and the Agnelli art collection (just a few Matisses and Picassos)
Fiat factory with rooftop race-track, and the Agnelli art collection (just a few Matisses and Picassos)

Marseille: Sun, Rockfish, and Pastis

View of the Vieux Port and MuCEM
View of the Vieux Port, CMA-CGM tower, and MuCEM
View from MuCEM
View from MuCEM

Marseille is having its moment in the sun in 2013 – an EU Capital of Culture, like Turku, Genoa, even Istanbul, before it, which led to an enormous investment in architecture, art, and publicity. The result is cheering, certainly if measured by property prices, in a benighted city of decidedly dodgy reputation (setting for the film French Connection). How much of this impact outlasts the annus mirabilis when the tourists go home, remains to be seen.

Vieux Port: fortunately NOT where we having dinner !
Vieux Port: fortunately NOT where we having dinner !

For now, the city’s natural advantages of 300 days of sunshine, a spectacular azure sea, and lively ethnic mix are augmented by Zaha Hadid’s dramatic tower for the CMA-CGM shipping line. It sits amidst a €6bn regenerated business district in the dreary north of the city; also new are at least 3 ambitious museums, a renovated and pedestrian-friendly port area (with obligatory Norman Foster pavilion), 2 new culture/atelier complexes in old warehouses, and a jam-packed schedule of music, theatre, street tours, talks, and food tastings. The bad boys who rule much of Marseille’s street life have been told to keep a low profile for 2013, and indeed, as in much of Italy, many of them probably have legitimate property and business interests that benefit from the gentrification.

Sunset over MuCEM
Sunset over MuCEM

To be clear, we have visited the city 6 times in the past 10 years, so are somewhat familiar with its seediness, sense of menace, but also the hard-edged friendliness of the Marseillais, who like port dwellers everywhere, wisely maintain a carapace of suspicion and caution. Yet it takes little to bring out generous natures – think Neapolitans, Palermitans, or Glaswegians. Moreover, the mix of where we stayed, the Panier, a hotbed of intrigue, was superb: Algerians, Corsicans, Comorans, Cameroonians, Vietnamese, and pied-noirs, basically getting along, piled in higgledy-piggledy walk-up blocks overlooking the Vieux Port.

Moreover, unlike Nice or, say, Aix, one can largely pass a week without hearing much other than French & Arabic, and most of the well-heeled visitors to the Côte d’Azur wisely give Marseille a wide berth. So you get the sun, food, wine, and sea, at much-lower prices and with no risk of being seated next to the loud cash equities guy from Essex, whom you didn’t much like at work, and positively loathe now that you see his Ferrari that barely fits his girth, his silicone-clad wife tottering on Louboutins, and immaculately turned out brats-in-blazers.

Art Museums

MUCEM – the new complex on the port. Hugely memorable for the walks across narrow bridges that connect the various historical and brand-new buildings. The architecture, an outer wall of cast concrete lattice, and gardens are both lovely public spaces, but also hint at the museum’s core interest in the civilisation, culture, and art of the Mediterranean littoral: latticed balconies are common in Andalucia, North Africa, or Istanbul.

MuCEM's latticed walls
MuCEM’s latticed walls

Vielle Charite – fabulous collection of ethnographic objects from Europe and elsewhere. On this trip, the show of Mexican masks from film-maker Francois Reichenbach’s donation was awesome. Centrepiece of the Panier.

Mexican masks...
Mexican masks…

MAC – the main contemporary arts museum. Combine with a visit to Le Corbusier’s Cite Radieuse. It’s a bit of a drag to get to, best to take the buses (21 or 22). Could combine with a visit to Sormiou calanque.

Musee des Beaux Arts – did not go, but is near the Friche in an interesting part of town.

FRAC PACA – the humorously-named headquarters of Provence’s regional contemporary art acquisition, display, and education institution. Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and is located in the gentrified Joliette area, just north of the Panier. Combine with visit to Zaha Hadid’s tower.

Musee Cantini – an elegant and joyous little space, mostly filled with top-tier 20th century and Modern art, and space for temporary exhibitions downstairs. Located in the posh 6th arrondisement.

Other Art & Culture

Friche – former railyard, converted into ateliers for various artists, musicians, etc., and events spaces.

Public art as social policy tool.....regenerating neighbourhood near the Friche
Public art as social policy tool…..regenerating neighbourhood near the Friche

Kader Attia – lovely collection of white concrete objects placed on the mole of Marseille’s harbour, by the French/Algerian artist.

Cite Radieuse – Le Corbusier-designed apartment block. There is a tiny hotel, restaurant and bar within the building, and the roof is worth a visit.

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Views of the Le Corbu's Cite Radieuse
Views of the Le Corbu’s Cite Radieuse

Eglise St Laurent – in addition to the better known Notre Dame de la Garde and La Major, this is an ancient Romanesque structure, built on the site of a temple of Apollo.

Food

Chez Etienne – best pizza in Marseille (wood oven, and I prefer the anchovy, olive, garlic and tomato version), located in the Panier. Awesome steak.

Meats ! Chez Etienne
Meats ! Chez Etienne

Boit de sardine – excellent fish at great prices. Bookings advised, lunch only.

Boite's take on fish and chips (actually the unfortunately named panisse, a fritter of chickpea flower, like in Sicily)
Boite’s take on fish and chips (actually the unfortunately named panisse, a fritter of chickpea flower, like in Sicily)
He was once a monkfish...
He was once a monkfish…

Chez Vincent – very good Italian (and pizza)

La Kahesa – very good Tunisian near the port, wonderful service, with takeaway. Brik is the star starter.

Part des anges – well-known and touristy, but one of the best wine bars around, with decent prices for excellent wines, particularly Provencal.

Les Buvards – more obscure wine bar, specialising in biodynamic and organic wines. Less interesting selection by-the-glass, but worth a visit if you’re into natural wine.

Le Lunch – restaurant in the Sormiou calanque, fairly high prices but that pays for a wonderful setting (albeit with no potable water !) and an ambitious / innovative cuisine.

Chateau – more traditional restaurant in the same calanque, specialists in traditional Marseille specialties, including bouillabaise.

Le madie des galinettes – stalwart of the Vieux Port fish restaurants, slightly upscale and with very good food to match. Great bouillabaise and a fair price, particularly for the location.

Pizza st jean – excellent takeaway pizza in the Panier.

Pizza and couscous for tea...
Pizza and couscous for tea…
Another tea in the panier - chicken from Noaille's halal butchers, wine from Les Buvards
Another tea in the panier – chicken from Noaille’s halal butchers, wine from Les Buvards

Pizza in Noailles market – Naples style folded up pizza slices (electric ovens) served out of shacks on the side of the main market at Noailles. Remain alert, as it’s hectic, crowded, and tourists stand out, even more than elsewhere. Local drunks warned agains the bad boys that lurk in Noailles metro station.

Bar de Marine – good for aperitifs, outdoor seating on the Vieux Port (south side), great view of the setting sun.

L’Unic – apparently a late-night institution on the Vieux Port (southeast corner)

La Caravelle – slightly upscale second floor bar overlooking the Vieux Port, quite a nice setting, small and mostly indoors, with more than a few tourists.

Shopping

We don’t shop, but Maison Empereur (near Noailles) is a large and elegant haberdashery that has a wonderful collection of everything from mussel pots, to espadrilles, to soap. Awesome place.

Licorne soap factory: in the Cours Julien, this is one of the main brands of the ubiquitous olive oil soap. Nearby, Cantinetta is meant to have great Italian food.

Other

Vallons des Auffes – more a contradiction-in-terms, a working fishing port that’s pretty much in central Marseille, rather than a true calanque. This is a lovely spot to watch the sea and sun, and an easy walk from the Vieux Port. Chez Fonfon has an excellent, if pricey, bouillabaisse.

Memorial to WWI on France's eastern front, Vallons-des-Auffes
Memorial to WWI on France’s eastern front, Vallons-des-Auffes

Le Sormiou – a more remote calanque within the national park, surrounded by cliffs, the scrub (garrigue), and pine trees. About 1 hour moderate difficlty walk from the Sormiou-Cayolle stop on the 23 bus which leaves Rond Point du Prado (Metro 2). Eat at Chateau or Lunch.

The trail to the calanque of Sormiou
The trail to the calanque of Sormiou

Carry Le Rouet & Sausset-les-pins – two moderate sized sea-side villages with restaurants in both, and a easy 4km trail along the coast that connects them. Both are on the Miramas line out of SNCF Gare St Charles.

Frioul, If – didn’t go to these islands which dominate the coastline of Marseille

Other Resources

Chef Rowley Leigh in the FT: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/3b98121e-ba6d-11e1-aa8d-00144feabdc0.html#slide0

The Guardian’s generous coverage: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/marseille

NY Times: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/marseille

Fish Head Assam Curry

Fish Head Assam Curry
Fish Head Assam Curry

After a week in Paris, I’ve been pretty unmotivated to eat London’s distinctly average and overpriced restaurant food (with some very honourable exceptions). So after a few days of Vietnamese, Khmer, and Thai cooking, I remembered this dish, from Samy’s curry house in Singapore (a less good, but more entertaining, version is served at the Apollo Banana Leaf next to the coolie brothels on Race Course Road). The name “Assam” actually has nothing to do with the Indian state, and rather is the Malay word for “sour” and refers to the tamarind that gives the curry its distinctive sour note. The vegetables and the fish head give the dish a considerable complexity that’s distinct from similar Thai dishes, and also from the antecedent Indian (Bengali and Keralan) fish curries.

Delicious stuff for the summer, and if you have a decent fishmonger, there’s a good chance he’ll have salmon or cod heads going to waste (mine gives them away).

In the event, I used a gurnard and a mackerel, the former for its pretty looks and texture, and the latter because it’s cheap and fantastically fresh in the UK. Take care with the gurnard, it has sharp, hard bones, long painful dorsal and mandibular spines, as well as a sandpaper-like ridge on its skin, none of which soften with cooking and need to be removed carefully from the filets – on balance more trouble than it’s worth. The mackerel was perfect, and if you’re feeling flush, a red mullet would probably be awesome.

Mackerel and gurnard making friends.  Note his sharp elbows...
Mackerel and gurnard making friends. Note his sharp elbows…

Start by putting the fish carcase(s) in a steamer with a little water and lots of sliced or mashed ginger. Steaming the head and bones, with ginger, removes any odd smell (there shouldn’t really be any if the fish are fresh) and effectively makes a stock. Steam for 10 minutes, and retain stock and bones, discarding the ginger.

Rempah paste
Rempah paste

In a mortar and pestle, grind together the paste (rempah): 4 fresh red chili, 4-5 dried red chili (remove the seeds if you can be bothered), 5 cloves of garlic, 4-5 small Thai shallots (or normal shallots or just a red onion), 2 stalks of lemongrass, 4cm of ginger, 1tbsp of shrimp paste (can find this in Asian supermarkets, I tend to use a less pungent Thai one, but the correct one to use would be belachan, a Malay variety)and a half teaspoon of turmeric powder. I also put in 10 sichuan peppercorns for fun, but they are not part of the canonical recipe, and may not make a big difference.

Veg for the curry.  Long aubergines best...
Veg for the curry. Long aubergines best…

Heat some oil in a pan (I used mustard but olive or vegetable are fine) on medium heat, and chuck in the rempah, let it fry until fragrant and well-mixed with the oil. At this point, I added a few small pieces of a Bangladeshi vegetable called shatkora, which is a little like a lemon (yet has no juice and is used mainly as a cooking ingredient for the scent in the peel and rind). I also added 2 star anise, 4 cloves, 4-5 kaffir lime leaves, 5-6 curry leaves, and let this all fry for a minute or so, stirring constantly. Add about 2-3 tbsp of curry powder, preferably home-made (recipe here: https://eatthehipster.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/mums-meat-marinate-mix/), and mix everything.

Paste, coconut milk, and fish stock
Paste, coconut milk, and fish stock

Now add about 60-120ml of light coconut milk (depending on your taste for grease!), wait for the milk to bubble, and then the fish-head stock. Then add some water (depending on how “wet” you want the curry to be), and again let it bubble. Add 5-6 okras, a handful of green beans, 1-2 skinned tomatoes, and a long eggplant (look for the Indian, Chinese, or Thai types, rather than the fat Turkish type which doesn’t seem to cook as well). Add a tiny bit of sugar, and at this point I put in quite a bit of tamarind (having previously soaked the paste in warm water, and strained to remove pips and fibre) juice. The idea is to get a sourness to balance the pungency of the rempah, and richness of the sauce, while in no way overpowering the umami that comes from the fish stock nor adding a particular sweet tone (i.e. this is not a Vietnamese sweet and sour fish soup). I also tend to cut the okras at this point, so that the sticky liquid inside comes out and adds body to the sauce.

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When the vegetables are tender, put in the fish head (if not the bones), and the filets of fish, let it all simmer on a medium-low heat until the fish are done. Let sit for 2-3 hours for the flavours to meld. Serve with white rice. Just mind the eyeballs.