Marseille draws sunseekers in the summer, eager for a hike in the Calanques and a quick dip in the Mediterranean sea, or American tourists keen to taste Provençal cuisine on a Julia Child pilgrimage.
While many would hunt down bouillabaisse, a working-class stew once made from undesirable fish no one would buy that is now served in upscale restaurants, I would say go for couscous instead, found in all price ranges across the city and a nod to Marseille’s diverse population, many of whom have North African origins.
Marseille even has an annual festival celebrating couscous, now in its fourth year.
There are many reasons to visit France’s oldest city—a break from picture-postcard Provençal villages, Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, hip cliffside hotels, seafood platters, the sun…
As for me, I have one more reason. I go to Marseille for Maison Empereur. The last time I was there, I stepped out with vegetable peelers I didn’t know I needed in my life.
Founded in 1827 by François Empereur, France’s oldest quincaillerie, or hardware store, is still family-run today, with seventh-generation successor Laurence Renaux-Guez helming the business.
Every time I’m in Marseille, I make sure to schedule half an afternoon at Maison Empereur, what’s probably my favorite store in all of France. There’s nothing like it elsewhere, especially if you are in the market for niche kitchen and baking tools.
I’m probably at an age where I appreciate quality cookware and kitchen utensils. One of my preferred activities while on holiday is to head to flea markets or kitchenware stores such as Labour and Wait in London where I scour offerings for locally-made souvenirs with a story to tell that are more practical than fridge magnets.
Needless to say, the Marseille institution has a cult following, not just among foreigners like myself, and looks the part too.
Maison Empereur is a two-storeyed treasure trove of kitchen essentials, hardware, clothing, bathroom fixtures, cleaning supplies and even old-fashioned toys that effortlessly transports shoppers back in time between faint, familiar whiffs of orange oil. Not everything is made in France but it is a good place to start.
The store’s biggest fans could even take a step further and spend the night in a 970 square-foot apartment hidden at the back of the store on the second floor.
Wares are neatly displayed on sometimes-cramped rows of antique wooden shelves, with baskets, pans and sundries hanging from the wood-paneled ceiling. Clothing, hats and footwear are housed in a newer extension just across the street.
Store assistants, each one knowledgeable and helpful, don’t seem to mind if you linger around for ages and do not buy anything.
I’ve asked for a particular serrated knife from Opinel (the store assistant behind the counter knew what I wanted right away), got advice on sizes of tiny frying pans (take the bigger one) and was told there is one last straw hatmaker in France who still makes wide-brimmed hats from the region the traditional way.
The hat I was interested in was out of stock and wouldn’t be restocked in time before I left Marseille. The store assistant immediately scribbled down the name of the hat workshop on the back of a postcard so I could try my luck online.
Each time I’m there, I spend a disproportionate amount of time browsing household goods, particularly in the kitchenware section, scrutinizing everything and its provenance, also careful to steer clear of bulkier items I have no room for in my luggage.
Outside, a chaotic energy—the good kind—dominates the narrow streets of Noailles, a lively Arab neighborhood in downtown Marseille known affectionately among locals as “the belly of Marseille”.
Coming to Maison Empereur means immersing yourself in the multicultural atmosphere outside its doors, almost a microcosm of France’s melting pot diversity, even if just for a little bit.
Some say Marseille largely escaped unscathed in the 2005 French riots in part due to its centrally-located lower-income immigrant neighborhoods like this one, where residents and street vendors of different ethnicities would gather to sip their morning espressos at the bar counter in the local cafés.
Noailles is so closely entwined with market stalls, fresh produce and all things culinary that it even has its own food zine Ingrédient, published at least four times a year by a team of volunteers.
Perhaps what makes Marseille so relatable is its authenticity, something that wouldn’t have been possible if it were without flaws.
Compared to the other immaculate, wealthier cities along the Mediterranean coast, France’s second-largest city is an unruly work-in-progress, long plagued by poverty, unemployment and its share of urban violence, as seen in the recent escalation of drug turf wars.
Yet many still flock to it, generations of immigrants—Italians, Vietnamese, Armenians, Jews— proud to identify as Marseillais today and increasingly, well-heeled millennials here for a weekend getaway.
I’ve been in the store for hours, still hesitating over what else to buy. My basket is laden with a crêpe pan, knives and savon de Marseille from Le Sérail, one of the four remaining manufacturers of authentic savon de Marseille.
These no-frills brownish-green cubes of all-natural locally-produced soap are known to be gentle and moisturising. They are also incredibly effective when it comes to the most stubborn food stains and have saved my sanity more times than I could remember in the four years I’ve been a mother.
I chance upon a nondescript stainless steel vegetable peeler that is made in France. I grab a small bagful of them without the luxury of overthinking it.
We are running late for our train back to Paris and haven’t had lunch, walking as briskly as we could uphill, toddler in the stroller and rolling luggage in tow, in an alley that would take us right to the railway station.
My final souvenir from Marseille is a delicious takeaway of an offal kebab wrap I would eventually eat on the train we grabbed from an eatery in that alley, a couple of steps below street level teeming with regulars.
If you ask me, it’s one more good reason to head back to Marseille—and we will opt to dine in next time.