Getting Fresh and Local in France

02/19/2013 08:16 EST | Updated 04/21/2013 05:12 EDT
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An apprentice makes pains au chocolat and croissants at the National Bakery and Pastry Institute (INBP - Institut National de Boulangerie et de Patisserie) on November 20, 2012 in the northwestern city of Rouen. AFP PHOTO/CHARLY TRIBALLEAU (Photo credit should read CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

Fresh and local doesn't get any better than what I experienced last week in Marseille, France. By now we all know that we need to eat more fish, less meat and lots of veg but our Canadian culture and climate doesn't really support that process easily. And, even if you knew how and where to buy the freshest of fish, would you know how to cook it? Would you ask your fishmonger? Do you have one of those?

In Marseille, France the entire ancient city is built around the port as it has been for 2,600 years. This southern city has been an important Mediterranean transport and fishing gateway to the rest of Europe but it has also achieved the status of being the Cultural Capital this year. Quite a feat for a humble fishing village that happens to be the second largest city in France.

Every single day locals and local restaurateurs expect to see small boats unload today's catch from the boat onto the dock at the smack at the heart of town. There is no sign, no song and dance, this process has been happening here for thousands of years; everyone knows where it is. It is pure theatre to watch as bream, mullet, mackerel, sole and octopus are hauled, weighed, hawked and cleaned on the spot, in the moment for the patrons. The fish culture is so entrenched here that the Cultural Museum feels it necessary to stipulate no smoking, no pets and no fish are allowed in the centre. OK then.

This is the kind of place that you will find a tiny hole in the wall fish restaurant providing the most outstanding seafood meal imaginable. La Boite a Sardines sells fresh fish in its own stall but also makes outstanding meals out of shucked oysters, pan fried whole sardines, crawfish and "fish and chips" in a most cheerful, Provencal style. The chips turn out to be chickpea puree formed into potato shapes and fried and, when dipped in housemade aioli, you will think you have gone to heaven (where there is lots of garlic).

I'm convinced that it is never simply which foods are available that makes a people; it is their attitude toward the food. The cultural roots that support a style eating support a joie de vivre and a healthy body. Where we go awry isn't in our food choices, it is in our food attitude of filling the hole rather than feeding a soul and supporting local trades that go back as far as our ancestors.

French Family Cooking