Eight days in Corsica and Catalonia –
The table is carefully set: a bowl of cherry tomatoes from the garden, radishes (approaching the end of their season, their piquancy almost – but not yet – too much) and cucumbers with herbs and cream. The simple ingredients are held in stark relief to the formal tablecloth, glassware and carafe. There is respect for this humble harvest.
“It’s not a good season to eat in Corsica,” Henri begins. It is not an apology, but an explanation: “Here we must rely on nature, the seasons dictate the entire story of our table.” I am à table with my friend’s parents – Henri, Veronique and their friend Gisele – their local culinary knowledge is profound, their generosity too. However it appears their hands, and our plates, have been tied by nature.
“Our brocciu is entirely delicious but it's, unfortunately, a winter treat,” laments Henri. Brocciu, made with sheep's petit lait (whey) and milk, is only available when the ewes are feeding their young, thus its season is limited to the months following the birth of the lambs, when the pastures are also rich. Gisele suggests the six months from November, Henri counters with only three months, from February. To steal that early milk from the lambs would be to ruin their flavour for the pot. It is a game of checks and balances.
There is a not-so-subtle suggestion that the influx of tourists and the external interest in Corsican cuisine, threatens this delicate balance. The soil here is poor - no calcaire as in Crete, nor is it volcanic as in Sicily - the land must work hard to provide. Driving around the island you can see where the agricultural plots have been discarded over the centuries, the earth exploited to give its bounty to the crops or the vines, and then deserted as they seek fertility and flavour elsewhere.
On those rather hazardous, winding roads you can also see the stains of a fierce nationalism; while the town names are all marked in both French and Corsican, someone here has taken the time to black out the French alternative - completely, aggressively, with jet black spray paint - all around the island. It makes navigating difficult, but does also make the point succinctly.
While the Corsicans have always been fiercely proud and strongly nationalistic – not Italian, not French, but Corsican – the trio tell me there is a resurgence of this Corsicanism, a form of isolationism on an already isolated island. In silent battle, children are being given traditional names, complicated names that had long disappeared from the island; unwitting troops in an invisible war they are now sent to school to battle through a life with way more consonants than is healthy.
As they talk, the trio remember their own youth. They tell of walks to the hills to harvest herba-barona – the endemic thyme that is found at the mysterious point where the soil changes from terre humide to terre sec. “You don’t search, you just wait for the perfume to reach your nose, when it does you will look down and discover herba-barona all around you.”
Henri recounts memories from his family's annual pig day, and the fresh Corsican sausage, figatellu, that is the culinary highlight of pig day. Sadly, it is another treat I am missing - made with pig’s liver and blood it requires the colder weather to keep it fresh and safe to consume.
The local honey also has only two seasons (of course, I am told, neither of which are now). The bees must work hard to maintain their lives with the flowers in the mountains, to disturb them early would be to rob them of their own livelihood. Conversely, when the chataignes flower they are rich in pollens, the long branches laden with flowers and the hives holding an abundance of honey. The pattern of consumption is set by a far greater power than hunger or desire. Our supermarkets could learn a thing or two here.
I have endeared myself to these three wonderful people and carefully, slowly, some of these seasonal treats are plucked from a hidden cellar – remnants of seasons gone by. The honey is deep and rich in flavour, only a few thick tablespoons remaining in the jar, with a strong taste of the hillsides - their spring pastures distilled in the pot. A tiny morsel of dried and smoked brocciu also appears. It is the result of the excess, when such a thing occurs. In this case, the cheese maker or frugal housewife will carefully salt the cheese, placing it in a wooden mould and smoking it over a gentle fire using a local wood which burns with very little flame but has a beautifully flavoured smoke. The cheese is indeed delicious: smoke, salt and a grassiness from the late winter pastures. It is so precious they do not indulge, rather slicing off tiny portions and waiting to watch my expression and subsequent joy.
Traditions like these, conversations like these, are the reason I travel.
And yet, beyond the thick walls of their home I found an ever-present shadow, a darkness on the island, something I could not quite put my finger on – perhaps it was the end of the season and everyone was tired, perhaps it was their desire for independence, making them naturally wary of intruders? Whatever it was, I was not quite comfortable. The feeling tickled at my feet and so I left Corsica.
In a twist of fate, I found myself in another region desperate for independence, however the feeling in Catalonia was vastly different. I arrived in the middle of La Festa Major, an annual party of Vilafranca del Pinedès: human castles, theatre, music and, of course, food and wine (most especially those little yum-yuck olives stuffed with anchovies, served straight form the tin - an easy addiction).
In comparison to Corsica, I found Catalonia full of warmth. In fact, there was an almost oppressive heat, exacerbated by pretty much every man I encountered - those Spaniards are a tactile bunch. While the sexual advances were, well, advanced, the desire to touch was certainly not limited to men. Everyone I met would touch me, kiss me, hold my face, my hand, my arm, my back, the conversation conducted as much through their hands as it was through their words. Proud of their culture and their people, they wanted me to feel that too - literally. It was interesting to see two cultures, both feeling oppressed and desirous of independence, react to the situation, and a foreigner, so differently.
The indifference was perhaps a bigger surprise than the cold of Corsica or the warmth of Catalonia - unfortunately it was accompanied by a rather large bill. I found dinner at El Celler de Can Roca - currently number 2 on the 50 Best list - lacking. Some great dishes, many so-so dishes: I felt there was a little laziness in the same left-right-left combination on the plate – in this case protein + reduction + foam (with the exception of the excellent Palamòs prawns - the seafood in Catalonia was all exceptional). I found the wine pairing overwhelmed by a river of Cava at the beginning - an hour and a half of Cava - and the rather obvious opportunity to open larger format wines to our table of 14 also missed. I can very easily pass six hours at a convivial table, but this ended up feeling a little oppressive, I felt a little trapped. I was disappointed.
The realisation, I think, is perhaps more a personal one than a slight on the restaurant. I’m not a fan of that kind of food, pomp and ceremony. I knew I wasn’t a Michelin girl, perhaps I’m not much of a 50 Best girl either, or at least not so much from the pointy end, and not so much one for degustations. I like simple food: a few ripe ingredients on a plate, textural contrast, a spike of acidity, a focus on flavour and produce. I have found a lot more joy from the roadside figs than I found in that meal.
(Which may be an unfair comparison: the figs have had an excellent season here. At this point, in late summer, it is as if the fruit has made its own jam on the branches, but instead of glass jars, it is protected within the deep purple skins. Among the living jam jars, you can still find fruit that is perfectly ripe, with their droplet of sap twinkling in the sun, a trick of nature designed to tempt and lure the fig wasp - and my hungry eyes - to the fruit.)
At last year’s 50 Best Joan Roca noted that gastronomy is the landscape in the frying pan. I agree with that, I just sadly didn’t find it in his restaurant this time around.
Eight days in Corsica and Catalonia –