Perestrello Geller reviews:
151, plage de l’estaque,
13 016 Marseille
Tel : 04 91 03 83 78
In the 1980s I fancied myself as a bit of a Sherman McCoy. Tom Wolfe’s hero from Bonfire of the Vanities was a banker, and I, a mere theatre impresario, but we were both Masters of the Universe. Admittedly my universe only extended as far as Upper St Martin’s Lane and was prone to frequent implosion, but still I was a god of sort to a ragtag group of actors and their agents.
My fondness for Sherman came back to me as I headed towards the Hippocampe restaurant in L’Estaque, in the 16th arrondissement of Marseille. Like Wolfe’s anti-hero, I was accompanied by the wife of another man, and like Sherman I’d taken the wrong exit off the highway, ending up in one of the worst areas, of one of the most crime ridden cities on earth.
The traffic came to a halt and a crowd gathered around the car. Usually I tip the enterprising souls at the lights who wash windscreens but there wasn’t a squidgy mop in sight. Just like Sherman I felt blind panic. I fought an urge to swing into the empty lane reserved for oncoming traffic and accelerate away.
We crawled forward. The crowd around us peeled apart. Ahead on either side of the road stood rows of men dressed in black. They wore riot gear, and their sub-machines guns were unslung ready for use. It was the infamous CRS, the division of France’s police force staffed by the hardest of the hard. Our car was waved through with a flick of a barrel. Once more the road opened up before us. My hands ran with sweat as I slid the gear stick into second.
Now, none of this should put you off visiting the Hippocampe restaurant. The fact is I made the fool’s error of trusting my satnav. Doubtless it took us the most direct way, but common sense says that you don’t venture into Marseille in an Aston Martin unless you absolutely have to. Particularly when there’s a delightful scenic route along the coast from Carry Le Rouet, which remains, so I understand, unfrequented by the CRS.
The reason for my visit to L’Estaque was a long held desire to follow the famous artistic light of the south of France back to its origins. It was here around the late 19th century that the post-impressionist painting revolution began. First Cezanne, then Braque and Renoir, flocked to this small semi-industrial fishing port, nestled in the cliffs, next to the seething metropolis of Marseille. Here they created magic, aided by the alchemy of a light which changed plain old canvasses into pictures seething with life. Having lived permanently in the south for nigh on two decades, I felt I had to make the journey, back to where it all began.
So there we stood, my companion and I, on the jetty, looking back at the port, trying to see the intangible. The sky was blue, the air February crisp and the sun at its midday peak. Shadows played along the cliffs, fishermen mended nets, and yes there was the famous factory chimney included by Cezanne in amongst others The Gulf of Marseille seen from L’Estaque (as pictured above). I reached a finger out, tracing the arcs of colour.
‘Found it yet?’ said my companion. She can be a little sarcastic, particularly when shaken-up by anti-terrorist police.
‘Lunch,’ I agreed.
From the road the HippoCampe restaurant looks like a smugglers’ hide out, hunched snug against the cliffs, and accessed by a set of steep steps, descending to the water’s edge. There are ten or so tables on the terrace which are so close to the sea that the accepted sport for diners is to throw bread rolls into the Med to see if the fish are biting.
Inside there’s a table laden with iced seafood stacked directly from the boats which bob at anchor against the walls of the restaurant. The place is a southern French dream, one of those rare places, apart from the summer beach clubs, where you can actually dangle your feet in the sea.
Service is brusque and Marseillaise. I heard a diner on an adjoining table proudly telling his companions that they wouldn’t get any of that ‘tourist rubbish here.’ The chef certainly doesn’t have a delicate touch. The plates of food were stacked high with every imaginable crustacean used as garnish.
We mistakenly ordered a starter to share – a plate of salmon carpaccio. It was enormous, and accompanied by a large crunchy salad. The dressing was a little under-seasoned and required plenty of extra lemon, the slices thick slabs, rather than fine as they should be, but it was good honest food, eaten to the sound of the lapping sea and fishermen mending their nets.
To follow, I had the dish of the day, Paella, and my companion a simple grilled fish, which she pronounced the freshest she had ever eaten. My paella, was, well, it was enormous. The moule mariniere, which studded the rice, were some of the largest I had ever eaten. I made it half way through, not because the food wasn’t good, it was, but simply because I couldn’t manage any more. Dessert was a crème caramel. Not wishing to disappoint, the chef included enough for three people in a single serving.
Replete we sat and finished the last of our Domaine Paternelle, Cassis, Blanc, and looked out to sea.
‘I can’t think of a better place to start an affair,’ said my companion, who had recovered her composure.
I couldn’t help but agree. Particularly since it was Valentine’s Day.