The 'Navette', Another Bite of Marseille!

Celebrated at Candlemas, this traditional Provencal biscuit is also a popular sweet treat all year round


If you're really from Marseille, you just have to love it!

The 'Navette', is a bit like children: everyone to their own. There are almost as many types of 'Navette' as there are would-be pastry chefs here. Of course, there's the 'Navette' you can buy from the mythical 'Four des Navettes', now located on the other side of the Old Port and about to open a new shop at the Docks. Its replacement, the 'Navettes des Acoules', perfumes the ancient Panier quarter at every hour of the day. Then there's the organic, rustic and chunky 'Navette' made by 'La Maison Michel'. Or the Sunday special filled with candied oranges by 'Mandonato', who takes another steaming batch out of the oven every half hour.

Bready or dry, a shortbread with many faces…

It's difficult for someone who's not from Marseille to understand all the fuss about this little biscuit shaped like a rowing boat. It actually looks something like a dog chew. As far as size goes, it either seems to be too big or too small. The colour makes it look like a sick cake – a sort of cookie that refuses to brown. The taste: guaranteed plaster effect. Some people, like me for example, have taken years to be convinced by this oh-so celebrated Marseille speciality.

Pastis, check! Aliboffis lamb testicles, check too! So why not the 'Navette'? Especially as "he who does not love the 'Navette' cannot truly be from Marseille…" With time and patience, I've finally caved in. In the meantime, I have even conned some Parisian visitors into taking several batches off my hands. Oh well, what would life be without enemies? I have cycled my way all around the city on a quest for the best 'Navette' – that's how I found myself at the 'Navette Express' shuttle service at the airport, on the 'L’If Express Navette' shuttle service to Frioul island and, last but not least, at 'L’Estaque' – I got there on a shuttle too. Because unluckily for me, 'navette' also means shuttle… But all's well that ends well: I escaped the biscuits and filled up on the local 'chichi fregi' doughnuts instead! But so much pedalling forced my palate into submission. So I tasted every imaginable kind of 'Navette': small, oversized, hard, soft, bready and ultra-dry. One by one, these arid biscuits landed in my mouth which opened reluctantly, as if it was being assaulted by a nasty medicine. But like the medicine, I knew it was for my own good. And actually, as I approached the famous 'Four à Navettes' in Rue Sainte, my Pavlovian nose began to twitch, my bias bent, my character collapsed and finally – incredibly – my pace quickened! That smell! It's that cosy and reassuring scent of orange flower that gets me every time. Just like that artificial chocolate smell diffused in the Paris metro that leads you to the 'pain au chocolat' stand, the scent of the 'Navette' – which is everything but artificial – leads you straight to your goal. And there, in front of that pile of biscuits, it's impossible to resist and you think to yourself "OK, maybe I'll get just a few"… as the queue stretches out in front of you to snap them up! Then I leave, half-happy, half-guilty, with my little paper bag. And I wait until I've gone a bit further to prolong the pleasure of opening it. That way, when the smell of the baker's shop has wafted away, I can enjoy it again when I open up my treasure. I don't ever wait long though. I open up and let that typical Mediterranean scent soothe my soul… Then I examine my 'Navettes' and wonder what the people of Marseille did to merit them. Even when I buy them for other people I end up caving in. I nibble a biscuit, it's dry, I nibble again, it's fragrant and not too sweet, I swallow it all and yes, it's really good! If I dunk them in coffee I can easily finish off a whole packet. And as I'll probably never be a real 'Marseillaise', my favourites are the bready ones resembling 'Pogne de Romans' and 'Mouna Oranaise' brioches. If you close your eyes, you could mistake them, if you open them, there's no doubt: a clumsy little biscuit that looks like it was made by kids. The 'Navette' – even when it's deliciously bready – is still the 'Navette'.

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