By Samantha Mangino
Without leaving our corner of Somerville, minutes from Boston, I’ve experienced the New England coastline, walked the French countryside, and celebrated Persian New Year; but my time at Juliet began with a march to Marseilles. Everything we have to to tell you about the trip to the south of France that gave life to Juliet is in our creation of Marseille March. Embodied in each dish is the transportive power of memory. Inspiration drawing from the Côte d’Azur lingers in the fragrance, texture, and taste. There is a story begging to be told.
The easy part of being a server is balancing delicate dishes in my hands as I deliver courses to tables; it becomes muscle memory. What makes my heart race is acquainting guests with each ingredient and how it is intentionally composed on the plate. Our menu has a story and I am presenting it. The layers of a dish are chapters in the story. The experiences which inform the dish are rooted in the history of the place that inspired our menu. The fifteen minutes we get before each dinner service to hear the story as a team is never enough time to fully dive into the complex backstory. During the run of our menu, the details unfold with each service and my storytelling gets better.
Marseille March, our tribute to the French Riviera serves bright and lively flavors. Beginning with fougasse, a flatbread with origins in Italian focaccia, which leads into to the first course of tomatoes and peppers over a lentil and rice cake. Our onion consommé deconstructs a classic soupe l’oignon. Mussels in our third course are tinted yellow from marinating in a bath of saffron and herbs, a dish reminiscent of never-ending bowls of shellfish served along the French Mediterranean. A whole fish and a simple sounding lemon tart round out the meal, not missing a beat on the bounty of the southern coastline.
The 124 miles of the Riviera is a keeper to a collection of found things, and at Juliet we’ve captured those moments and carried them to Somerville. Monaco is the luxe escape for former Hollywood stars turned royalty, Cannes is the glamorous showcase of current movie stars, and Nice is a city easily described as “quaint” with the blue seas, clean streets, and red tiled rooftops. Embracing a cuisine all its own, Nice has taken proud French culinary tradition and seamlessly blended it with the resourceful offerings of the Mediterranean. Lush markets put forth the freshest produce year-round fluctuating with what is in season. With the transition of spring into summer, the produce bursts with color from peppers, zucchini, and tomatoes, all crucial ingredients in Niçoise cooking. You’ll find Nice in Marseille March. The rocky beaches with rolling pebbles appear as fried chickpeas and lentils on the first course of our production. The lemon groves produce succulent, sweet fruit which are weaved into tarts served for dessert. Nice has refined its cuisine and now it stands among the stars of the Riviera.
The second largest city in France, Marseille, is the rougher cousin to the allure of neighboring Nice. As a city known for its ports, it functions as the master collector of not just foreign products but people, too. The multicultural capital’s reputation was once that of a collapsed port city with a high rate of crime. Corsican mafia ran the town and when industry slowed and factories closed, the wealthy fled elsewhere and made the city truly for the working class. After the French North African colonies gained independence, migrants from Morocco and Algeria fled into the ports. The migration of Mediterranean neighbors flooded the edible landscape with flavors that assimilated even before the people that brought them.
Unintentionally, but systematically, Marseille has embraced a Mediterranean identity over a French one. Rather than dissolving into a melting pot, differences in cuisine seem to coexist without overlap. French, Moroccan, Italian, and Algerian cuisines all meet each other over the shared resources of the Mediterranean. In any city, we are always eating each others’ food, but Marseille has allowed its character to be based on the differences and exciting polarities, rather than seeping toward homogeny.
That isn’t to say the traditional dishes of Marseille go unseen – they are still holding their own. Tourists keep navettes in demand, a simple cookie signature to the city which have been turned out at the bakery Le Four des Navettes since 1781. Bouillabaisse is also found generously throughout the city. Chez Michel carries on the tradition with elegance, while others are revitalizing classics by using tradition as a guide rather than a rulebook. Chef Gérald Passédat has broken down bouillabaisse into four courses at his acclaimed Le Petit Nice, deconstructing the dish while maintaining the expected elements. Raw shellfish opens the meal and courses of saffron potatoes, rockfish stew, and whole mediterranean bass piece together a memory of bouillabaisse and Passédet’s childhood. Chefs like Passédet are cooking the truest form of what they know, and in doing so preserving memory. This ambitious retelling of a once simple original is a style we’ve adopted across many menus at Juliet, including this one.
There is more to Marseilles, though, than just French Marseille: tea rooms, halal, and Moroccan food are always close by. Couscous, lentils, and bright orange blossom are not quite French but wholly of Marseille. Mafia influence may have filtered out, but Corsican charcuterie and cheese live on in the city. Pizza, or the pissaladiere, is borrowed from Nice which was borrowed first from Italy. While it is more of a tart than pizza, you’ll still find locals referring to pissaladiere as “peetza”. The thicker dough, comparable to Sicilian pizza dough, is topped with caramelized onions, anchovies and a single olive.
The food and distinct flavors made available in Marseille aren’t asking to be thrown into one dish or even one meal. There’s so much to be told in the story that it would be a disservice to blend it together. The city is deeply personal and representing individuals from all strokes of the Mediterranean. The depth of the city has been simplified down to a bad reputation but for many Marseille took what was once displaced and gave it a home with meaning.
Stories matter. The story of the French Riviera matters to me. It inspired the production in which I began my career at Juliet. That production is a memory of Josh and Katrina’s conceptualizing Juliet’s beginnings. When I begin to tell you the story of our fougasse, even though you don’t know me, and even if it’s just for a few hours this summer, the Riviera matters to you, too; the memory box in which you store ticket stubs, chipped souvenirs, and seashells from each beach you’ve ever visited.