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Entries in La mer (1)

Friday
Nov122010

The Joys of Corsican Cuisine

In my previous post, I talked about the Terroir of Corsica and the honey, cheese and meats that contribute to Corsica's wonderful and sophisticated specialty food scene. Now it's time to get into the cooking and cuisine of Corsica, and talk about the many, many meals we enjoyed while on the island.

Life changing Lasagna at A Tramula restaurant in Evisa Corsican food is a seamless blend of French and Italian cuisine. It is Italian in style, with menus dominated by pizzas, pastas and tomato-based dishes. But it is often heavily French in flavor, rich, meaty, earthy and buttery. The food is fragrant and assertive with the use of the powerful herbs of the Maquis (click here to read my previous post about the Maquis). The flavor of the Maquis is in fact one of the defining characteristics of Corsican food. Its taste lingers in sauces, and sausages, in pasta dishes, cheeses and in the honey.

Perfect example of Corsican's French and Italian roots at the farmer's market in Ajaccio. On one side, pizza, on the other, Croque Monsieur There is an emphasis on hearty stews and braised meat dishes, wild boar being among the most famous. Pork in Corsica is particularly delicious as almost all of the piggies are either free range or genuinely wild. Corsica is also famous for it's chestnuts, and many products are made with chestnut flour, including polenta and beignets.

Our first taste of classic Corsican food came on our first night in Ajaccio. We went to a restaurant called U Pampasgiolu located on a quiet side street close to the port. Tables were set up in a sort of large alleyway which made for a very cool dining atmosphere. Matt and I both got the same dish. It was essentially a tasting menu but it arrived all at once, served on a large wooden "planche". There were 7 different dishes ranging from cheese to veal stew. The waiter told us the correct order in which to eat everything and we dug in.

A massive tasting platter of traditional Corsican dishes at U Pamapasgiolu First off, a yummy beefy, hearty soup filled with potatoes, carrots, onions and celery. Then there was a ham, brocciu cheese, spinach and wild mint tart that we felt tasted a bit like toothpaste. Not our favorite part of the assortment. But the other dishes were fantastic. Braised eggplant in tomato sauce stuffed with breadcrumbs and ham, veal stew seasoned heavily with herbs and a burst of sharp vinegar alongside creamy garlicky polenta. Then a charcuterie plate with salami, a thick sliced prosciutto and a gamey wild boar. This was our first taste of Corsican charcuterie and in my journal I noted that the meat was the "gamiest, smokiest, most delicious 'meat leather' we had ever tasted." Finally, there was a Manchego-esque cheese served with a thick fig jam. It was a major meal. Delicious and enormous. And an amazing introduction to the world of Corsican food.

Savoring the last sips of excellent red wine in the charming outdoor seating area of U Pampasgiolu We had another great meal on the road from Corte to Porto Vecchio at A Mandria, a huge restaurant with a large outdoor garden and patio. We arrived and were led to the outside where a family of about 20 were happily eating at a long banquet-style table.View of the outdoor garden and seating area behind the restaurant A Mandria The menu was extensive and, as usual, only in French and Corsican. So we had no idea what to order. Surprisingly, the waiter spoke English and he insisted that I get one of the specials of the house: an assorted meat platter with chestnut polenta, twice baked potato and braised beans in tomato sauce. I obeyed. Matt, on the other hand, opted for a lighter option, an omelette that must have been made with at least 8 eggs, filled with tangy aged Brocciu cheese and also served with a twice baked potato and braised beans.

Matt's massive Brocciu filled omelette at A Mandria My plate arrived. It was enormous. 3 different cuts of thick, grilled bacon-esque pork slabs, blood sausage, the stuffed potato, a hunk of Brocciu and the polenta. It was a meat bonanza. The bacon was really smoky, having been grilled right on the gigantic wood burning grill at the back of the garden. The rind was right on there, which added for a nice crunch with each bite. The sausage was juicy and impeccably seasoned. The beans, creamy and comforting.

My artery-clogging pork festival plate at A Mandria It was a ton of food. I finished about 1/4 of the plate before I conceded and let the bees have their way with it. (click here to read my earlier post about the meat-loving, ever present, occasionally pesky, but harmless Corsican bees)

Matt's omelette was lovely, light and fluffy and streaked with the crumbly cheese. And I should mention that, as expected, the bees had no interest whatsoever in Matt's boring old vegetarian omelette. But my pork? They came from miles around. I'm telling you, these bees love their piggy.

This was the first place we learned the concept of the "bee offering." We put a couple of pieces of my pork at the edge of the table. The bees went right to it. And while the occasional bee strayed over to my plate to inspect the remnants of a smoky piece of pork fat, most of them were happy to stick with what we had so generously set aside for them.Appease the bees: A generous pork offering for these meat-loving insects For dessert we had an amazing chestnut caramel flan and a much needed espresso. The waiter than made us taste 2 home-brewed liqueurs: one myrtle flavored (myrtle is a pungently flavored berry that grows among the maquis) and one chestnut flavored. Both were yummy, sweet and strong. We rolled away from the restaurant in a meat-induced haze.

Though I had meat coming out of my ears, I could not resist the silky chestnut caramel flan at A Mandria Myrtle and Chestnut Liqueur at a Mandria helped to revive me from a meaty black hole Perhaps our favorite meal was an unexpected stop in the tiny mountain village of Evisa. We drove through Evisa on our way to Corte, after leaving the town of Porto and enjoying a lovely hike in the Gorges de Spelunca. We had had a late breakfast and so we had planned to drive straight through Evisa to the Foret D'Antoine and then on to Corte (Click here to read my previous post about Corsica's natural beauty). But as usual, the drive took longer than expected and we arrived in Evisa around 1:30. Lunchtime.

View from the terrace of A Tramula in Evisa One of my guidebooks mentioned that there was a small family owned restaurant off the tiny main road in the town. We entered A Tramula and knew right away it was our kind of place. The restaurant itself is tiny, just one small room with a bar and a couple of tables. At one table in the corner a group of Corsican men sat drinking beer and bickering with one another. To the left of the bar was a kitchen, if you could call it a kitchen. It was basically just a closet with a grill, a little oven and a small four burner stove. But magical things were happening in that little kitchen closet.

We were escorted through the restaurant to a patio overlooking the beautiful Maquis covered mountains and the charming red-roofed Evisa houses. The air smelled sweet and clean. We sat down at our table with big smiles on our faces and ordered a half bottle of Rose.

Matt in Lasagna bliss on the terrace of A Tramula On the menu there was a special of the day. We didn't bother asking the waiter what it was because we would not have understood what he said anyway. So we just pointed to the words on the menu and ordered "deux."

It was not even 10 minutes later (service in Corsican restaurants tends to be amazingly fast) that we had before us a mouthwatering square of lasagna covered in tomato sauce, layered with some sort of soft and crumbly goat cheese and sprinkled with dried maquis herbs. We were speechless for a moment. It looked that good. And smelled that good.

Legendary lasagna at A Tramula We simultaneously brought our forks to the pasta and dug in. The lasagna was meltingly soft and tender. The pasta, cheese and sauce melded together in perfect harmony. Each bite was better than the next. The sauce was fresh, a little sweet, fragrant from the herbs. We sat there and ate in silence, slowly, carefully, as if the lasagna was a piece of art to be lovingly treasured. We looked up at each other occasionally, shaking our heads in amazement at the awesome-ness of this meal. We didn't need to speak because we knew what we were both thinking. Bite of lasagna. Sip of wine. The breeze of the cool mountain air, scent of the maquis drifting around us. Life doesn't get much better than this.

COASTAL CORSICAN CUSINE

Langoustine delight The food in Corsica's coastal towns does not differ drastically from the food that you find further inland, except for the obvious addition of excellent seafood. And almost every seafood based meal we had was eaten either right on the beach, or within sight of the sea, making everything taste that much better.

The Beach in the town of Cargese, where we had one of our favorite Coastal-Corsica meals All of the seafood we had in Corsica was impeccably fresh. But there was one type of seafood that was really outstanding: Shrimp and the mighty Langoustine.

I don't tend to think of shrimp as much of anything. I mean, I love it. But it doesn't have all that much flavor and there's nothing particularly special about it. Shrimp in Corsica, on the other hand, is a mind-opening experience. Every time I had shrimp, which was often, it arrived head and shell on, simply grilled or poached and drizzled with some olive oil and crunchy sea salt. To taste these shrimp is a revelation. They are so sweet and briny, so fresh. When you eat these shrimp it as is if you are tasting the little crustacean for the first time. As if you finally know what shrimp are supposed to taste like.

Dining outside at Sous La Tonnelle in Porto Vecchio At the restaurant Sous La Tonnelle in Porto Vecchio, I had one such enlightening shrimp meal. The restaurant is very pretty, located on a busy side street in the main part of the Citadel. As with most places we went to in Corsica, there was outdoor sidewalk seating. We always opted to sit outside when we could as the nighttime weather was a consistent balmy 75 degrees with a lovely cool breeze.

Sous La Tonnelle is known for it's traditional Corsican food, (as so many restaurants proudly boast) but we were also right on the coast so seafood was prominent. I pretended to look through the menu but the truth was, as soon as I saw shrimp as a main course, I knew what I was going to order. From the very first time I’d eaten a Corsican shrimp I was hooked. At this point in our trip, if it was on a menu, I was going to order it.

Braised endive with crispy pancetta at Sous La Tonnelle We started with a delicious dish of braised endive swimming in a balsamic reduction and topped with delicate slices of crispy pancetta. The endive was so tender and buttery it almost disintegrated into the sauce when you cut into it. Flecks of the crispy smoky pancetta mingled with each bite, creating a yummy mix of saltiness, bitterness from the endive, and a sweet tang from the balsamic reduction. A great start to the meal.

For our main course, Matt got a seared duck breast that was smothered in sweet caramelized onions, creamy fingerling potatoes and a dense meaty port-sauce. It was great. Really scrumptious.

Simple and spectacular shrimp at Sous La Tonnelle But the shrimp. Oh the shrimp. My dish was so simple. 4 or 5 large shrimp, some rice with herbs and vegetables, a couple of roasted cherry tomatoes. But it was perfect. I could've eaten a hundred of them. Head meats and all. Corsica has managed to elevate a humble, ordinary shellfish to a whole new level.Don't miss a single bit of these delectable shrimp. Consume from head to tail! One of the reasons I was so impressed with the shrimp was because of the enormous difference between the Corsican version and the one we get here in the states. But let's not kid around here. The shrimp were amazing and mind blowing and all that. But when it all comes down to it, a shrimp will still be a shrimp. It will never be able to stand up to what I consider to be the grand-daddy of all Crustaceans: The Langoustine.

You've heard me go into great, gory detail about Langoustines before, in my post about Barcelona. If you've never had a langoustine, the flavor is basically a cross between a lobster and a shrimp. They are actually related to lobsters. Langoustines are big, about 6 inches or so long, with lanky claws that extend far beyond their bodies. Their shells are much harder than shrimp but much softer and easier to split than a lobster. The meat is sweet and delicate. I rarely see Langoustines on a menu in NYC but in Europe they are very popular. And in Corsica they are at their finest.

Soothing view on the terrace at the club house at Sperone golf Course During one lunch, I indulged in an absolute langoustine bonanza. Matt only had a couple. He just doesn't get it. I had at least a dozen, and I only stopped because I thought the waitress was giving me funny looks. But how could I hold back? It was a Langoustine BUFFET!

World's greatest Buffet? Langoustine galore We had just played a round of golf at one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed course called Sperone. Sperone is astonishing. Beginning at the 10th hole, you see the Mediterranean in the distance. From there on, hole after hole, you are bombarded with one breathtaking view after the next.The 16th hole at Sperone is right on the water. It's Matt's happy place. Some of the holes appear to be right in the middle of the ocean. The water was a rainbow of gorgeous blues and greens, and it was so clear we could see straight down to the bottom. Sperone even has it’s own wonderful beach: Petit Du Sperone. It is a tiny stretch of sand surrounded by green hills. A great place to take a refreshing dip after a perfect round of golf.

Some of the nicest water we saw in Corsica was around the Sperone golf corse View of Petite Sperone beach. A small, quiet beach. You just walk right down from the golf course Sperone is a swanky, expensive course. And with every swanky course comes a swanky clubhouse to go with it. After our round we headed up to the clubhouse to grab a bite to eat. We were thinking a nice turkey club sandwich, some fries and a beer would be great. Instead we were greeted with an all you can eat gourmet buffet filled with delectable salads, cheeses, charcuterie, poached and smoked salmon, shrimp and a gigantic platter of glistening pink langoustine.

I was shocked. Langoustine are expensive, a luxury ingredient. And here they were, an endless supply at my fingertips. The buffet wasn't cheap. But for 35 Euros, unlimited access to not only langoustines but a host of other very high end ingredients made this a great deal. I grabbed a plate and began.

My Second Plate at Sperone Buffet: All Langoustines all the time Everything was great. There was curried shrimp, pasta salad with tuna and artichokes, avocado salad with fresh tomatoes, beet salad, endive salad, mozzarella salad with tomatoes and red onion. It went on and on. At first I loaded up my plate with a sampling of most of the dishes. But then I focused in on the main event, happily tearing apart one langoustine after the next. It was amazing.

We had another wonderful seafood meal in Porto at the restaurant La Mer. La Mer is a beautiful space with a large outdoor patio under a canopy of leafy trees. Strings of lights hang between the branches creating a magical secret-garden-esque atmosphere.

Lovely outdoor seating at La Mer We began our meal with a "Crumble de Nicoise." As usual, we had no idea what we were actually ordering, and as usual it did not matter. The crumble was some sort of mixed fish-tartare topped with, well, a crumble of breadcrumbs and herbs, sitting in a light curry tinged tomato sauce. It was an unusual and surprising dish that we loved.

Crumble de Nicoise at La Mer Though we were at a fish restaurant, Matt wasn't in the mood, having just spent the entire day on our boat ride through Scandola (click here to see my previous post on the marine nature reserve of Scandola). He'd had enough of the sea for the time being. So he got the Entrecote de Boeuf. And I gotta admit, it was awesome. A big, juicy piece of steak accompanied by a bernaise sauce that was so thick it could be mistaken for mashed potatoes. There were big roasted shallots, grilled cherry tomatoes and smoky grilled fingerling potatoes. There was also some sort of divine broccoli or spinach based puree that we couldn't quite identify. Fantastic.

Matt's Succulent Entrecote de Boeuf at La Mer I, on the other hand, was not messing around with meat. I knew that the fish at this restaurant came right from the waters we had been exploring earlier that day, and that meant I had to have it. I ordered the fish of the day which was sold by the gram. I don't actually know what kind of fish it was but it didn't matter.

It arrived whole, expertly charred on the outside, flaky, moist and delectable on the inside, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice and sprinkled with crunchy sea salt. My sides included the same mystery puree Matt had, along with a sweet potato puree of sorts, a stewed tomato and raw, sweet fennel dressed with olive oil and wine soaked golden raisins. A stunning fish dish that I will never forget.

My whole delectable fish at La Mer My final, and perhaps fondest, coastal Corsican culinary memory takes us to a beach in the town of Cargese on our second day on the island. We left Ajaccio to drive to Porto. It was a gorgeous drive but it was our first experience with the narrow Corsican mountain roads and sheer drops into horrifying bottomless gorges. We were terrified. Well, at least, I was terrified. Matt didn't have time to be terrified as he squeezed past an oncoming truck speeding around a hairpin turn at 70 miles per hour. He was sweating. I was holding my breath. We were stressed out.

After about an hour and a half of driving, I reluctantly tore my eyes off the road and began to look through our guidebooks to get an idea of where we were and how close we were to Porto. We still had a considerable way to go. We were, however, near to the town of Cargese which apparently had a very nice beach. We had yet to experience a Corsican beach and we were in much need of a break from our little road trip. We entered the tiny town of Cargese and I told Matt to pull off at a fork in the road. The road, the guidebook said, would lead us down the the beach.

The welcoming beach at Cargese Soon we saw a line of parked cars. We turned a corner and there was a long expanse of white sand and a beautiful blue sea. Matt and I had no idea what to expect of Corsican beaches and we were pretty shocked to discover how Caribbean it looked and felt. We took about a thousand pictures of the clear water and the surrounding mountains.

Irresistibly charming beach restaurant on the sand at Cargese beach We walked down the beach and came to a little restaurant. It was love at first sight. Thatched roof, wooden bar, a floor of sand. The family who owned the place was sitting at a long table eating platters of seafood and drinking wine. We were so happy to not be driving, so happy to finally be on a beach relaxing and enjoying our honeymoon, so happy to have discovered this unexpected magical restaurant. It was paradise. We rented two chairs from the owners of the place and set up camp.

It's a good life on the beach at Cargese After we were sufficiently chilled out we took our first dip in the Corsican sea. It felt just as good as it looked. Then we made our way up to the restaurant for lunch.

Matt ordered a panini with ham, cheese and tomato. I don't know why, but sandwiches in Europe are always good. This one really hit the spot. I went a little bolder and got the dish I saw everyone eating when we had first walked in. It was a mixed seafood platter with shrimp, mussels, smoked salmon, calamari, octopus, crab, fresh mango, tomatoes and Bibb lettuce. It was tossed with a light lemony vinaigrette and that was it.

My wonderful Fruits de Mer Salad at the Cargese beach restaurant It was AWESOME. First of all, this was my first taste of Corsican shrimp. Like I said before, a revelation. The mussels were tiny and sweet and tender. Every single aspect of this dish was impeccably fresh and delightful. I'd never tasted seafood like this before and I knew right away that I was in for some serious seafood delights on this trip. Like all things in Corsica there is something in the air…something in the land…something in the sea that just makes everything taste different.

Up Next: The Gourmet Side of Corsica and Drinking in Corsica