Provence in the foodie footsteps of MFK Fisher, by Tristan Rutherford
South China Morning Post, 20 October 2016
The arrival at Nice Airport was something of a ceremony for food writer Julia Child. As she wrote to her fellow cookbook colleague MFK Fisher: “this has become our ritual gear-shift from the USA”. In the 1960s and 1970s both female American writers were at the peak of their powers, and were the most famous foodie names in the Western world. It’s only natural that both friends gravitated to the planet’s most fabulous culinary corner: the South of France.
Today Nice Airport doesn’t offer the oysters and filet de sole that Julia Child once enjoyed. But my arrival coincides with the launch of several authentically local pop-up restaurants that dot the terminal. There is Chez Pipo, a purveyor of Niçoise chickpea pancakes known as socca. Plus La Tarte Tropezienne, a pâtissière (pastry) from St Tropez that has been using the same creamy recipes pastries since Child and Fisher last jetted in.
That bodes well. Because I’m following the culinary trail set by MFK Fisher who blazed a decades-long foodie highway from Marseille to Nice, frequently in the company of other culinary giants including Child, Richard Olney and James Beard. Fisher’s impossibly romantic notes on French cuisine, including Consider the Oyster, still top the Amazon charts.
Moreover, the 2016 opening of Child’s former Provençal home of La Pitchoune (lapeetch.com) as a cooking school, plus the recent book Provence 1970 by Fisher’s great nephew Luke Barr, has made her route an even more enticing path to follow.
It is Luke Barr’s expertise that I call on first. The American writer stumbled on his great aunt’s Provence diary “completely by accident” in a lock-up garage. As Barr explains: “That fall trip of 1970 was a fateful one, not only for my great-aunt MFK Fisher, but for the entire American food establishment.” The journal centres around La Pitchoune where pot luck dinners of jambon persillé and tarte tatin would be sourced in the local town of Grasse. The calibre of the dining guests – “they were all there in Provence together: Julia Child, James Beard, Richard Olney, Simone Beck, Judith Jones” – would be like inviting Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller, Pierre Gagnaire and Nobu Matsuhisa to a bring-your-own brunch.
As Fisher’s 1970 diary remembers, the group made day trips to the food-obsessed villages Mougins and St-Paul-de-Vence. Back then, a young Alain Ducasse was commis chef at Le Moulin de Mougins (avenue Notre dame du Vie, moulindemougins.com), which reopened in 2016 to serve gastronomic lunches from €35. In St-Paul-de-Vence the must-eat is still La Colombe d’Or (place du Général de Gaulle, la-colombe-dor.com). It’s the restaurant that hosts canvases by Picasso and Matisse, both of whom were encouraged to part with their art in exchange for a tasty Provençal lunch. As MFK Fisher recalled: “I know, at this far date in my life, that I was meant to live and if possible to die on a dry, olive-covered hillside in Provence.”
Barr also followed his great aunt’s musings to the regional capital of Aix-en-Provence. Here Fisher found private solace by staying in the charmingly traditional Hotel des Quatre Dauphins (54 rue Roux Alpheran, lesquatredauphins.fr) and sipping espresso in Café le Deux Garçons (53 cours Mirabeau). (Don’t forget, she was food royalty who wrote for the New Yorker and had been photographed by Man Ray). Barr, who stayed and ate in the establishments his great aunt frequented, says: “you can still find that timeless Provence today if you look for it”. He claims the spirit is not embodied by named chefs or famous cheeses, “but by home cooking and market pleasures, just like Fisher found during her decades spent touring the South of France”.
My own journey shuttles south through the vineyards of Provence to Marseille. MFK Fisher frequented France’s second city from the 1920s to the 1970s and captured her musings in the food memoir A Considerable Town. “The place haunts me and draws me, with its phoenixlike vitality, its implacably realistic beauty and brutality”. The city has changed irrevocably since her last visit 40 years ago. The area around Marseille’s Saint-Charles train station was once a den of drugs and prostitution. Now the immigrant tangs of Vietnamese chilli sauce and the steam of freshly made falafel rise from the vibrant backstreets. The most unctuous couscous in town is served at La Fémina (1 rue du Musée), then paired with Algerian Chateau Tellagh.
The most traditional part of France’s most diverse city is the Vieux Port. Here fishing boats still chug in at 6am then dump their catch of squid, bream and rockfish directly onto the quay. As Fisher once said: “If I could in the next three minutes teleport to the Vieux Port, I would know exactly what to eat”. The informal Marché aux Poissons remains Marseille’s most colourful sight. Fisher had a fine view over proceedings from her regular haunt at the Grand Hotel Beauvau (4 rue Beauvau, sofitel.com). Although renovated to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2016, it still allows guests to pen their notes on an antique writing desk while overlooking the sea. Local stores include Four de Navettes (136 rue Sainte, fourdesnavettes.com), which bakes local navette cookies tinged with olive blossom and lavender. It has used the same cast iron oven since 1781.
Yet Marseille pairs its traditions with out-and-out dynamism. Its size, seaside location and high levels of migration make it thus. To fine some innovative city flavours I hike uphill to the cours Julien, a no-go area in Fisher’s time. EGO (73 cours Julien) is a new artisanal outfit that vends vat-to-glass biodynamic wines that you can pour yourself. Its 70-plus ice cream flavours are all organic. You can help yourself to those too – your bucket is then weighed at the counter on electronic scales and priced accordingly. For spellbindingly modern cuisine I hit AM (9 rue François Rocca, alexandremazzia.com), which won it’s first Michelin star in 2015. The lunchtime set menu is an Asian-Mediterranean medley of seaweed pan noir, pineapple-grilled oysters, and wild salmon sake. At just €35 it also proves that Marseille is France’s cheapest culinary entrepôt.
From Marseille there is only one place left on Fisher’s South of France trail. The city of Arles is a foodie Mecca where I have thrice eaten the best meal of my food critic existence at double Michelin star L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel (7 rue des Carmes, rabanel.com). Like Fisher I check into the Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus (place du Forum, nord-pinus.com). In winter 1970 she stayed in the hotel’s Jean Cocteau Suite, where the maid delivered croissants, jam and café au lait for breakfast. Four and a half decades after her visit, the staff don’t recall Fisher. But more recently they hosted fellow American food writer Jim Harrison in the same room. He apparently ate very well.
According to her biographer Luke Barr, Arles represented a crossroads for Fisher. At the age of 62 it would be one of her last visits to the South of France. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking 2 would be published in 1971. Chez Panisse in California opened the same year. The migration of Provençal cooking into global cuisine became unstoppable. It’s astonishing to think that the movement’s inspiration came from the restaurants, street markets and cafés from Nice to Marseille. Which makes a present day pilgrimage all the more prescient.
Lots more Provence travel writing can be viewed on Tristan and Kathryn's official website.