ON THE ROAD IN FRANCE — We began our last day in France down south with soupe de poisson . We then got on a plane and flew 500 miles just to have dinner up north near Strasbourg. But after spending an entire week devoted to eating, this no longer even seemed strange.
"Who do they think we are?" wondered Paula Wolfert when we landed in Marseille on the third day of the trip. There seemed to be about a hundred people on the tarmac waiting to welcome us. There were representatives from the city, from the airport, from the French National Tourist Office. "At last," said James Villas, "we have come to a place that really appreciates eaters."
Nobody strolling through the fish market in the old port of Marseille could possibly doubt that. The fish dance about the tables, waving their tails while shoppers shoulder their way through the throng to get a better look. "Fresh, fresh, fresh," shout the fishermen standing under the Provencal sun. The rest of the city may be thoroughly modern, but on the waterfront nothing has changed for years.
It's been 51 years since anything changed at Maurice Brun, a sort of food museum overlooking the Vieux Port. "My father served the first meal here on Feb. 15, 1936," says Frederic Brun, who is still serving the exact same meal today. It is the only meal the restaurant serves, morning and night; it takes two to three hours to eat.
Wells has brought us to this old-time, family-run restaurant with its single, home-like dining room because "it is the one place that continues to serve real old-fashioned Provencal fare." As if to prove her point, Brun comes out carrying a little crock of frozen olive oil, which we are to spread on bread like butter. "This is how they used to eat olive oil around here," says Wells, "but you hardly ever see it served anymore." The oil is amazing in your mouth; almost instantly, it changes from a cool solid, melting into warm rivulets of concentrated flavor.
To begin, there is a parade of hors d'oeuvres like oil-cured olives and tiny salted fish and tiny octopus in tomato sauce. There are small cold beef daubes , their tops shiny with natural meat glaze. And there is the famous "Provencal caviar," poutargue , made out of dried mullet eggs; it has the color and flavor of sea urchin and I find it enormously appealing. But at my side, Paula Wolfert is tasting the extremely salty tapenade. "There's rum in it," she says, explaining its peculiar harshness.
Now they are parading a gorgeously grilled fish around the table. It is daurade , a highly prized local bream, and it is wonderful. "It would be a lot more wonderful with a little salt and lemon," says Villas irritably. But salt, it says right here on the menu, will not be served.
There is a lot of food yet to come. But the artichokes berigoulo (the Provencal word for mushrooms) are watery and tired. Villas is intrigued with the way the birds are cooked in the big fireplace, but watching them rotate over the fire turns out to be more exciting than actually eating them. We finish off with cheese, fruit, nuts and candies, the nougat and calissons of the region.
"Since we always serve the same meal," says Brun, leading us down the stairs, "people do not come often to our restaurant." "Maybe," says Wolfert under her breath, "that's not the only reason."
"But didn't you think it was interesting?" asks Wells, as we drive inland through the bleached landscape to Arles. Occasional patches of green flash by like gifts, and the ghost of Van Gogh hovers in the air.
"Yes," says Villas, "but I'm already dreaming about the lovely little omelet I am going to have for dinner."
Outside it was 95 degrees but in this dim rectangular stone room that looks like a cross between a Breugel painting and a chic Paris restaurant, it is fresh and cool. From where we sit, we can see a tattooed man in a green undershirt sitting beneath the enormous tree that shades the patio.
When we walked in, Jean-Louis Pons threw his arms around Wells as if she were a long-lost friend and led us to a table already piled high with bowls of tomatoes, cauliflower, red cabbage and celery; these are to dip into the anchoiade , a simple mixture of anchovies, olive oil from the local mill, a bit of vinegar, pepper and a touch of garlic. It is perfect fare for summertime in Provence, washed down with the straightforward local wine.
But there is better yet to come. On Fridays, everybody from miles around turns out to eat the grand aioli . "We make its by hand," says Pons. "For each liter of oil, we use five egg yolks, mixed in drop by drop. I don't add the garlic until I see that the mixture is about to break; the garlic holds it together."