cristal liminana pastisMarseille is the world capital of pastis - but it's also dominated by multinationals. Cristal Limiñana is the exception: a tiny family business whose recipes have come down through the generations.

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Unusual and fascinating, a trip to this factory takes you way off the beaten tourist trail (though it's extremely quick and easy to get to from the city centre by public transport: see below for details).

Maristella Vasserot, pictured below, will be your guide and is full of stories. No wonder: she's the great-granddaughter of the man who started the show.

And, as she ran a language school before deciding to join the family business, she speaks fluent English, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

Her tour is a relatively new idea, lasts around half an hour, longer if you want to chat and linger, and should be booked ahead. Shortly after we stopped by, in November 2015, it received an official French government "label" for the quality of the welcome. Note that only small groups can be accommodated, as space in the factory is tight.

maristella vasserot liminanaThe first thing you clap eyes on when you go down the hill from the train station or tram stop is a bizarre corner building shaped just like a boat, with a long, curved hull. The resemblance is intentional.

In 1884 Maristella's great-grandfather, Mañuel, left his home in Southern Spain on the first boat that would give him a free ride to Algeria.

He was aged 12 and driven there by poverty, like many of his countrymen. His destination: a relative's bar in Alger which catered to other Spanish refugees.

The ex-pats were homesick for very many things, not least an anis-based apéritif called paloma (the name, meaning "dove", is inspired by the fact that the spirit turns pure white when water is added). Drawing on a family recipe, Mañuel made them a bottle, then another...

Many years later in 1962, his son - Maristella's grandfather, also named Mañuel - had to move on again after Algeria gained its independence and seized the Limiñana factory in Alger.

He took another boat back to Europe and made for Marseille where he bought and converted this old building, originally used as a ceramics works.

cristal liminana pastis factory Around it he created the curious façade in memory of his family's maritime odysseys and, at 60, rebuilt his anis factory - and his life - from scratch. Today it's a local institution.

By comparison, then, the more famous Pernod Ricard drinks conglomerate is a real Johnny-come-lately. Paul Ricard launched his pastis in 1932, while the Limiñana family has been making anis-based drinks for over 130 years. Their story - of migration, exile, a richly mixed background - could hardly be more typical of Marseille.

The Cristal Limiñana factory, pictured, is near a railway viaduct and right in the heart of a residential district, surrounded by houses and apartments.

Although there is certainly a distinct anisette aroma in the air here, it would be too intrusive to have a working alembic (a still) on the premises: it could be dangerous and the neighbours might even get drunk on the fumes!

So the distillery itself is situated in Meyreuil near Aix en Provence and this boat-building is a little bottling plant, where you can wander around and meet the five friendly workers, some of whom have been there for years (the company employs 12 staff in total).

It's very small, and the bottles are produced to order: there's no room to store piles of stock. But the Limiñanas like to be in the inner city, whatever the downsides, rather than stuck out on some souless industrial estate.

manuel liminana pastisRight next door is the showroom. It includes some delightful displays of vintage posters and memorabilia such as a 1950s promotional calendar showing Catholic, Jewish and Muslim feast days (Algeria in those days was highly multi-cultural), or this affectionate cartoon, pictured, of Maristella's twinkle-eyed grandfather playing pétanque, a bottle of anis in hand.

Cristal Limiñana also makes traditional Marseille pastis. The difference? Anis is made purely with anis, Maristella explains.

Pastis also contains liquorice and caramel. Unlike the pure white anis, it goes yellow when water is added. In fact the Marseillais often ask for un jaune when ordering one. Click here to read our own full guide to Marseille pastis .

The factory produces two million bottles a year, mostly anis and pastis. But it isn't locked in the past.

As well as the tried and tested recipes, it makes a range of other products, including Cap Corse, a fortified wine from Corsica, Manzana Verde, a Spanish, apple-based liqueur, and even a vodka, Marseille style (despite the fact that Russian distillers had their sights set on the Cristal trademark!)

There's also a cacher (kosher) pastis, other imported specialities such as rum and limoncello and a non-alcoholic anis, as well as sugar-free versions flavoured with rose, almond or mint - and even chocolate. So the range is, to say the least, varied.

You can try and buy any of these items. And, if you like what you taste, don't hesitate to snap up a bottle or two, for Cristal Limiñana is not on sale as widely in Marseille as it should be.

Incredibly, its pastis was not, at the time we visited, available in the hyper-touristy Maison du Pastis, a shop on the Old Port which prides itself on its huge range. And, while it's exported up to a point, you might have trouble finding it abroad, though you can order it on the Cristal Limiñana website.

These elegant, tall, hexagonal anis bottles, with their ornate label (think: a North African version of Art Nouveau) are very like the original ones from Alger, with the original slogan "limpide et pure comme le Cristal" ("clear and pure as crystal"). They're a kind of collector's item, and a lovely souvenir.

Where: Cristal Limiñana, 99-101 boulevard Jeanne d'Arc. 13005 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 47 66 72 Website for Cristal Limiñana

How to get there: The factory is a five to ten minute walk from the busy Blancarde transport hub, which is served by the metro (line 1), the tram (lines 1 and 2), and the regional train (from Saint Charles station). Read our full guide to how to get around Marseille.

Photo credits (from top): © SJ for Marvellous Provence (three images), Cristal Limiñana.

 

 

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