Welcome to The Aix-Files

Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my
blog postings inspired by my year in and around
Aix-en-Provence. The spot includes travel tips,
discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,
cultural events, interviews and historical
tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!



Saturday, October 23, 2010

EATING AND RUNNING IN CORSICA






















EATING AND RUNNING IN CORSICA

The problem is, the island of Corsica is basically one big mountain. Or actually, it’s a series of mountains. Fifty of them are higher than 2000 metres. This makes running a big challenge. One of the most revered and punishing hikes in France is the GR20. GR stands for Grande Randonnée, which is a series of hiking routes that crisscrosses the entire country. To hike the GR20 from the north to the south end of the island, you need 14 days plus enough gear to overnight in the many refuges (huts) along the way.

Me, I just wanted a good morning run. Splendid beaches surround the island, but as we all know, it’s hard running on sand. So in Calvi, on the west coast of the island where the music festival took place, we checked into the hotel you-get-what-you-pay-for. But what it lacked in the way of shower curtains, ice and wifi, it made up for in its magnificent view over the ocean. And it was the perfect starting point for a cliff-top run down the coast. The only distraction was the profusion of wild fennel by the road, as high as me, begging to be picked and stuffed into fish for the grill (see recipe below).

The cliffs are most dramatic south of Calvi, in the Scandola Nature Reserve. The only way to see them is by boat. We hoped to also see rare fish eagles, dolphins and seals. We did see three goats and an eagle’s nest. Plus some of the most incredible rock formations imaginable, in brilliant shades of red and ochre. Erosion has shaped them into strange dog’s heads, witches and devils. These rocky inlets are called Calanches. Our captain steered the boat in and out of the narrow crevices to give us a good look. Here the cobalt blue water is so clear that grass grows 35 metres below on the sea floor, nurtured by the sunlight.

We also stopped at Girolata, a remote fishing village accessible only by boat, or by a very long hike in. It’s set magnificently against a wall of red cliffs. We picnicked on the beach with a dozen or so friendly wasps, and then swam in the pristine water.

IN CORSICA, aside from attending the music festival previously described, we also:
-Negotiated the corniche road along the north coast
-Visited wineries in Patrimonio, renowned in France but not known elsewhere
-Bought a beautiful paring knife with a wooden handle (brand name: Vendetta) that folds over into a carrying case, perfect for cutting herbs in the wild
-Ran along the sea wall and the old port of the city of Bastia, with all of the cute fishing boats bobbing in the sunlight
-Re-visited the hill-top artist village of Pigna, brimming with artisans, musicians, an excellent concert hall and great mountain food
-Sampled restaurants, both rustic and wildly creative

RESTAURANTS IN CALVI, CORSICA: E.A.T & U FANALE

E.A.T. stands for Epicurean Avant Tout. The restaurant is now closed, but we hope to find it in its new location at Easter when we return. It was perfectly situated at the foot of the Citadel in Calvi so that we could have a quick and beautiful dinner before the late-night concerts. Among their inventive dishes, we sampled a green-tomato gazpacho served in a pop bottle with a straw, gnocchi with magret de canard (duck breast) and a beautifully steamed fillet of St. Pierre with crunchy vegetables and lemon verbenam one of my favourite herbs.

U Fanale refers to the phare, or lighthouse, that you can see from their garden terrace. This is a casual, family-run place on the edge of town with some of the most creative cuisine I’ve ever tasted and presented in gravity-defying splendour. Jim’s monkfish was served with a crisp shrimp toast on black rice with an emulsion of red curry, surrounded by braised cockles and clams and coconut milk sauce (see photo). I tried an unusual aiglebar fish from local waters with a caramel sauce infused with ginger accompanied by crisp dumplings filled with langoustines and served with a spicy tomato dipping sauce. Incredible.

INGREDIENT OF THE WEEK: FENNEL
Fennel is plentiful and comes in all forms here. The fat bulbs are shaved into salads or braised with wine until tender. The seeds are added to fish broth, such as bouillabaisse. The wild fennel stalks grow profusely in Corsica and Provence. They’re gathered, very happily by me, and cut up to use on the grill with fish.

RECIPE: FISH GRILLED WITH FENNEL
It doesn’t get much simpler than this, at least with the produce found here in the mountains and at the poissonnerie. This recipe is best with the fennel stalks found in the wild, which are also sold in the market here, if you don’t happen to actually find them by the roadside yourself. You don’t actually eat the fennel, as it’s dried. It simply perfumes the fish and acts as a protective base on the grill. So I’m not talking about the plump fennel bulbs, but the skinny sticks that are literally as tall as me (okay, I’m not that tall).

Cut the stalks into manageable pieces, soak them in water for awhile so they don’t burn right away. Choose your fish: loup de mer, or sea bass, is very traditional. Another option is daurade royale, or sea bream (pictured). One of my favourites is rouget, or red mullet, a very small red fish, not found in my neck of the woods in Canada, (small red snapper would be a good substitute). Ask the fish monger to clean the fish, then season it with salt and pepper and rub it all over with olive oil. Stick some of the smaller fennel branches inside the fish, arrange some thicker branches on your hot grill, then lay the fish on top. Cover with a few more fennel branches. Grill not too long, until done to your liking, turning once. Rougets take a mere 6 - 8 minutes total, the others longer, depending on their thickness. Serve with lemon wedges, a drizzle of excellent olive oil (we’re exploring local producers) and perhaps a dollop of tapenade or pistou, served in a basil leaf on the side.

Enjoy!

A la prochaine,
Andrea

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