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Monday, 17 June 2013

En Route with Andrew Hamilton: V

Hardly Boaring

[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Bastia, Corsica

I had some pretty bad eats in Corsica, but no worse than you're likely to find anywhere in France. I made the mistake in Bastia of having a cheeseburger and deep-fried potato lumps late one night in a tourist place on the waterfront, and the night before that a cheap pizza that turned out to be one of those crèmeux pizzas covered in the equivalent of hot white Velveeta.

On the plus side, they've got three major cuts of charcuterie that I could figure out, one being sausage and the other two being cured shoulder cuts off the pig, in different-sized chunks and probably from different areas of the shoulder. All of it good, cut up with your couteau de berger. Then there's a daube de sanglier or daube corse, wild boar stew. I had a bowl of that and it tasted just like beef stew, big soft yet chewy chunks of braised meat, so that I thought maybe they were trying to pass off beef as boar until I calculated that it wouldn't redound to their fiscal benefit to serve beef in pig country. I was expecting something like the best food I've ever had in my life, which was wart-hog prepared by a Dutch engineer's African houseboy in Tafiré in Côte d'Ivoire, but there turned out to be a long distance between wart-hog and Corsican boar.
The cheese is mostly thomme, which is usually a cheap cheese made out of cow's milk after the good elements have been siphoned off, but a lot of the thomme in Corsica is made with sheep's milk, which adds an elegant trashy pungency. I can't even imagine how many sheep they have to milk, and how they hold them down while they're doing it. There is a lot of goat cheese, and it's good. The downtown market-place in Ajaccio is where it dawned on me that the word for one of those small rounds of goat cheese, crottin, is the same word they use in the editorials complaining about sidewalk dog turds. There was a lady selling perfect crottins of Corsican goat cheese for 2€ a hit, and it was perfect for slicing up in the hotel room. She put a purple flower on top of every crottin, and would wrap it up in Saran Wrap if you asked, so it wouldn't leak in your pocket.
The vin ordinaire is the prize of Corsica. This is an island that's been on the route between Antioch and Phoenician Gibraltar for six thousand years, or between Carthage and Oslo if you go south by north, and I figure they're still making wine by the recipe that killed Alexander the Great. To a taste-challenged individual like me, whose wine palette was developed drinking plonk out of those green glass liter-bottles that you used to get for a franc when a franc was worth twenty cents, the Corsican vintages are near the peak.

You know those green bottles that had the initials G.R.A.P. in raised letters in the glass around the top, and a plastic cap sunk into neck of the bottle on the same principle as blocking a drain-pipe with a fedora? Pried it out with your thumb? And you paid a 15-centime consigne, returned when you brought the bottle back, and it had a ring worn in the glass around the top like an old-time Coke bottle or milk bottle from going through the bottling machine so many times? Back when I first heard that you had to develop a palette for wine, I decided to develop a palette for the cheapest stuff, from that Paris clochard G.R.A.P. through the 1968 vintage of Barefoot Bynum to whatever purple stuff they can rouse out in northeastern Brazil. I've savored and explored and come to understand and appreciate the bottom end of the wine list from Phnom Penh to Duluth, and that Corsican ordinaire stands with the best. I recommend the red. It goes especially well with an Ajaccio "petit-friture" which to me as a retired salmon biologist looks like a pretty good seine haul of 40-millimeter Chinook juveniles passed through the deep-fry pot, but tastes more like something from the smelt family trapped in a minnow bucket under the pier pilings.

I could see spending time in Ajaccio. There's a pretty good pair of beaches right in town, easily the equal of a lot of Brazilian coastal towns, if it weren't cold and rainy. The coffee in a café, the express, is stronger and better-tasting than on the continent, and you get almost twice as much in the same cup, full to the brim. I was only in Ajaccio a few days, and didn't figure out much else in the line of cuisine. Except for some really amazing ravioli, which is a tale for another time.