Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bouillabaisse Is the New Pancakes, or, How Things Went from Bad to Worse

I don't particularly care for pancakes, as it happens. I find them gummy, too sweet, and generally over-filling and unpleasant affairs. I know this. But on many a hungry late-morning in a New York diner, their large, sweet simplicity becomes fleetingly appealing, and left to my own devices, I invariably order them. They arrive, thick and bland, covered in artificial syrup, and by the end of brunch the only thing I am full of is regret. Now, as I am otherwise not a person who often misorders, and never with any repetition, this phenomenon of ordering the wrong thing knowing that you won't like it has come to be known between J and I as "pancakes" - as in, "Mahi-mahi? Are you sure that won't be pancakes?"

That in mind, here is the story of how we took five kinds of transportation to get to one place, and how I had a meal I would have traded for a two-foot stack of poisoned flapjacks.


We left Avignon early in the morning after a day of laundering and general recuperation. Saddled with two forty-pound backpacks, we shuffled through a pile of train schedules, trying to plot the route to our next destination, Roussillon - a tiny hilltop town known for its local ochre-based masonry and overall quaintness. Practically inaccessible by public transportation, we knew getting there might involve a complicated series of steps...but little did we know just how complicated.

Theoretically, the way involved a train from Avignon to Apt, via Marseille. From Apt, we would take a taxi ten kilometres to Roussillon. We boarded the train, full of croissants and optimism.

Many reliable sources had advised us to avoid Marseille - and we fully planned to - but a two hour layover there made us think of lunch. And lunch made us think of Marseille's claim to culinary fame, bouillabaisse. Our handy Lonely Planet guidebook directed us to a string of restaurants on the Old Port, which we found without incident. In fact, Marseille's metro was impressively efficient! We strolled along the quay in the afternoon sun, reading menus and comparing bouillabaisse prices, salivating, until we found the joint specifically recommended by Lonely Planet. It was an expensive dish at €22-28 (depending on whether you ordered an additional half-lobster); this meal would be one of the few decadent splurges we would take on our trip, and would mean a couple of bread-and-cheese-only days to compensate. As we lumbered toward the door with our packs, a waiter waved from inside, Non, non! Fermé! We looked at our watches: two-thirty. Our faces fell, for the first thing we had learned about France was that the French eat at the strictest and most absolute times. Lunch is from 12:30 to 2:30 and no later; restaurants reopen at 7:30 and close at 9:30. Bistros that remain open all afternoon often only serve drinks between dining hours. We were not to have our bouillabiasse, after all.

But we were absolutely fixated on the idea. We elected to take a later train and stick around in much-warned-against Marseille, just for dinner. We passed the afternoon quarreling and sweating under our pack straps. At seven-thirty, we were back at the door of Le Merou Bleu.

Our waiter grimaced at our packs and had us shove them in a dirty corner. He sat us, recommended a wine, and didn't bring it. Twenty minutes after ordering, he informed us that they were out of the shrimp appetizer J had ordered. But we were hungry and forgiving, salivating over the promise of five-fishes bouillabaisse with scallops, mussels and jumbo shrimp in a decadent saffron broth, served with butter-soaked croutons and house-made saffron aioli.

The dish that arrived bore absolutely no resemblance to that description. Lumps of gritty fish flesh sat like oily islands in the yellow broth they'd been simmering in for hours. There were two mussels and one unchewable scallop; a tiny, sad shrimp, shriveled inside its shell, perched in the center of the bowl like a dead pink insect. The waiter returned and, with a flourish, presented me with an additional enormous bowl of the evil-smelling yellow-grey broth, as though the quantity in my orginal bowl might not be enough, that I might want to sop up this extra half-gallon of vile brine with my baguette.

Repellent, repellent bouillabiasse. Tragically disappointing; a new, crueler world of pancakes. At least he gave me a free dessert when I didn't eat it.

The Marseille metro, it turns out, closes at nine, and the only cabbie we could find (most reasonably eating a pizza, we thought) charged us ten euros to take us the three kilometres to the station because of our baggage. Naturally, we missed the last train. Lonely Planet recommended a hotel nearby; let us just say that we bolted the door, didn't go barefoot, and the next morning, I threw away Lonely Planet.

Our next destination, Apt, was interrupted by an inspiration to detour through Aix-en-Provence, incited by the "July" chapter of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. We were under the impression that a bus from Aix to Apt would be available; upon our arrival, evidence was to the contrary. We spent a forlorn hour in the Aix station planning an alternate strategy, followed by a comforting breakfast of croissants and hot chocolate to make our fate go down easy; to get to Apt from Marseille, we had to go back to Avignon.

So we did, by bus, and as there were no further buses to Apt, we stayed the night, a block away from our original hotel. Le sigh.

After that, things slowly got better. We passed the following morning in what had become our "usual haunt" - Pizza Rush, where we ordered large, steaming slices of pizza au saumon, creme fraiche et champignons. Made with a mix of mozzarela and gruyere, pizza in France is invariably quite good and more affordable than most other cuisines.

The bus to Apt got us there without interruption, and in Apt we found a taxi without too much difficulty. The B&B I had arranged turned out to be a bit of an uphill hike from Roussillon proper, but it was pretty and clean and the proprietors were wildly friendly. That evening we shopped for diner at a little market on a quiet street, tramped home, and enjoyed a fabulous spread of fresh baguettes, local saucisson and fromage, chocolate-orange marmalade, and a very enjoyable bottle of €3 red wine from the next valley over. It wasn't pancakes - or bouillabaisse - at all.


It should be noted that I've backlogged a bit, and that I have several additional updates that took place after this one. Fear not! Wonderful adventures - and truffles - yet to come!


Dad said...

What a delightful read, my charming daughter! I am so glad you are chronicling your travels and travails through Europe. I will make sure that someone, if not I, will share them with your children, at the appropriate time. God bless you and keep you safe and healthy. You seem to be able to keep yourself happy. All my love, Dad.

Mom said...

Into every life a little rain must fall...or bad bouillabaisse, as the case may be. Glad things are looking up and that you are moving on. It was good to hear from you again. I am amazed how you and J are daily finding your way through the good and the bad and the ugly. I'm sure the wonderful surpasses them all! :)

family said...

Got the message about the sleep (or cat-nap I should say) on the hill! Bummer that I wasn't here to talk live! So glad you finally joined the club! I only wish I was smart enough, talented enough and resourceful enough to chronicle my own travel journeys. I am so proud of you and your amazing sense of wonder. You make me smile thinking about you. I love you like a sister (hummmm, that's funny. You ARE a sister). Cool.
your hill-sleeping buddy (and sister) bo

Barbara (Biscuit Girl) said...

Sounds like an eventful journey thus far. Can't wait to read more.

Al said...

I've been there when you've ordered pancakes... it does usually end in regret, and we share my eggs. :) Love you!

Helene said...

You bring back so many childhood memories. My dad was stationed in Apt and Aix and this is where I grew up. Thanks for bringing me back home.

Plume said...
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Plume said...
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Plume said...

I live in Marseille and I'm not to keen on bouillabaisse, but there is something I know: if you find a bouillabaisse that costs under 35-40 €, just take something else...
This dish is made with expensive ingredients and is time-consuming, it canot be cheap.
Sory you saw Marseille under its most ugly side, it's a beautiful town.

Well fed in Marseille said...

Your problem, my dear young lady, is relying on Lonely Planet, which is written by and for ideologically tenditious clueless backpackers, and wandering around in a large city clueless and without careful planning. There are plenty or good restaurants in Marseille - go where the lawyers hang out or well known Marseille restaurants, not ripoff joints where the clueless tourists congregate such as at the Waterfront. In France, we eat at regular mealtimes, and do not snack, which is why we are not fat tubs of lard and why restaurants close outside of eating hours (so that they can prepare the next meal’s offerings rather than microwaving pre-prepared garbage). Try "Le Petit Nice" or "Le Rhul", which serves excellent Bouillabaisse with a wonderful view of the Med and mountains and sunsets. But you need to be reasonably attired, which is why the sandal wearing gay and dyke seeking philistines of Lonely Planet whose every page is tinged with ideological anglo saxon ranting never heard of these places. I mean, I'm not going to show up in cutoffs and a backpack and ask for fine Roast Beef at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC. I’ll be treated for what I am – a budget seeking backpack toting clueless tourist. Good on you for travelling and wanting to learn, but do try to get some street smarts, kiddo ;)