31 Aug 2010

City Fizz

For the first time in 16 years, I have been away from England for longer than 4 weeks on the trot. Actually by the time I went back to Albion slightly over a week ago, it had been 8 months since I was there last: a record! Besides this was only going to be a flying visit, three days crammed-full with appointments involving flights, taxis, trains, coaches and buses, not exactly a leisurely city break where you can take the sights in, play tourists and treat yourself.

I invited my brother to come along, as my travelling companion. I think I needed a human anchor, some sort of moral support, as I felt somehow daunted by the prospect of facing full-on city life after 8 months of island recluse life, beached on the shore of a tiny village an hour's drive away from the nearest town.

My brother hadn't been in Manchester since January 2002, therefore as a land planning/ architecture enthusiast, I was looking forward to his input about the city centre remodel. He was anticipating change but not the kind of change he witnessed: a whirlwind vertical architectural challenge deployed at full-throttle between the odd preserved historical landmark, a supposedly concerted vision of new Manchester that flirted with controversy as it transcended into a chaotic mish-mash of proportions, style, materials and substance. Already you can't help but forge an idea about which of those new structures will make it to the next 50 years, and which will start a slow descent into demolition before the end of the next decade...

Also a flying visit to Liverpool!
Some of those projects weren't completed by the time I left Manchester in December 2009, for instance Spinningfields, yet with more of the same in the offing than elsewhere in town (or elsewhere in Blighty for that matter): ample office space (with supply expected to overtake demand), chain bars, Prêt-à-Mangers and branded coffee branches, Tesco and Sainsbury's in their mini or midi formats...

Meanwhile Piccadilly Gardens looked different too, even to I. The groundfloor to One Piccadilly Gardens, home to Bank of New York (BNY Mellon), now promotes café culture with the likes of Kro Bar, as an extension to existing offerings from Caffè Nero & Co. The once desolate concreted square ('gardens' remaining an overstatement) has now turned into an invitation to somewhat linger rather than dash past.

Elsewhere, a construction site opposite Victoria Station reveals that Chethams School of Music has surprisingly embraced modernity and, in a 'tabula rasa' exercise, is having state-of-the-art premises constructed. But in our speedy tour of town, my brother and I surprised ourselves by deciding that the best store refit was the once unloved/ despised Arndale Centre: gone are the 1970s yellow toilet brick cladding, dingy lighting and claustrophobic ambience, and in are the natural light wells, airy walkways, quality white tiling and revisited shop spaces that make the Arndale compete with the Trafford Centre in terms of style and kerb appeal, an aberration of thought prior to the refit!

At the side of City Inn Hotel where we were staying, we discovered a pedestrian gateway that conveniently links the Gay Village (pictured above)/ South Piccadilly Gardens area as a streamline shortcut to Piccadilly Train Station, with (yet again) brand-new office blocks thrown in the redevelopment (one housing the GMPTE*).

I have to admit that over the last 5 years or so, I haven't been a regular Manchester city centre visitor, hence the fact that many of the (un)/fortunate brand-new property developments had slipped off my radar, and I was indeed always in for a surprise when I did go into town, losing my way, trying to remember what the previous building looked like, searching for clues, bemoaning those soul-less unloved buy-to-rent apartment blocks, with dubious architectural merit, that relentlessly sprang like unsightly cold sores, cages of metal hastily clad in glass or faux-brick (thinking of the residential tower-block on New Bridge Street). A couple of years ago, I remember counting no less than 12 construction site cranes in the skyline along the M.E.N. Arena-Trinity Way-Mancunian Way!

The June 1996 IRA bombing propelled - so to speak - Manchester city centre into a building site that went far beyond the impact of the bomb damage, into an era of fervent deconstruction/ construction/ reconstruction that still continues today, 13 years later. The city centre has changed beyond recognition. Love it or loathe it, it is nonetheless a fascinating transformation, albeit ruthless in places, but this is only history repeated, despite the fact that our architect luminaries and City Council chiefs pledged not to repeat the architectural mistakes of their post-WWII forefathers. Who are we to blame because after all nobody's perfect and 'errare humanum est' (error is human!). And in the same breath we are told that someone's junk is someone else's treasure... A modernist's excuse?

*GMPTE = Greater Manchester Public Transport Executive
Further reading: Why not check out my reader contribution to a Manchester property development piece published by G7UK (September 2008).

30 Aug 2010

Soft Amaretto Macaroons

For a dozen macaroons
Preparation: 10 mins
Cooking: 20 mins
Refrigeration: 3 hrs

Introducing the perfect accompaniement to our Caramel Cream Coffee Cups recipe, in terms of taste and texture first and foremost, and also so as to make use of the 4 egg whites from our Coffee Cups. This is how I came to improvise those macaroons.

Yes you got it, I had to play a bit of a rescue mission to save my Caramel Cream at the time, hence the extra egg yolk I had to add to the cream (which left me with a total of 4 egg whites, used here). However if you have been good with your Caramel Creams and only needed 3 yolks, you'll still need 4 whites for the macaroons (that is if you are aiming for 12 pieces).
  • 4 egg whites
  • 4 tablespoons caster sugar
  • 4 tablespoons ground almond
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • Splosh of Amaretto liqueur (i.e. 1 tablespoon worth)
  • Cooking oil for greasing
  • Cocoa powder for dusting
Pre-heat the oven to 100°C.

Whisk the egg whites together until firm, preferably using an electric whisk. Add the sugar, ground almond and flour and whisk again with the electric whisk until you obtain a fluffed-up mix. Add the splosh of Amaretto liqueur and whisk some more before carefully spooning into a greased biscuit/ mini-muffin silicone mould, or a greased metal biscuit/ mini-muffin tin. Optionally line each hole with a paper case in order to ease the macaroons out  when cooked (more than for cosmetic reasons).

Place the mould in the higher part of the oven and leave to gently cook for 20 mins. The macaroons will remain pale throughout, but do stick a knife through the centre of one in order to check they are ready to be taken out of the oven.

Leave to cool 5 minutes, then carefully remove from the tin one at a time. Leave to cool further on a baking grid to get rid of any trapped moisture, before placing the macaroons on a plate in the fridge for as long as the Caramel Cream Coffee Cups. The refrigeration will help the macaroons harden slightly, which is the consistency we are aiming for: soft and almost chewy, but holding their shape.

Easy does it, you're all done! Just before serving, dust with cocoa powder to give the delicate macaroon pallor a hush of colour.

19 Aug 2010

Home Truths About What We Call a Home (Part 2)

Exporting home out of the home: I remember one of Jo Malone's beautiful product catalogues from a decade ago that provided some insight into the skincare specialist's definition of 'feeling at home'. It said something like: 'When I travel, I like to surround myself with things that I enjoy at home, like a (Jo Malone) fragranced candle.'

Basically this means that you can recreate the home away from home, during a hotel stay, for instance, with some key-pieces that are meaningful to you and your well-being, and that will help you to unwind while reminding you of home. For some it might be a candle, for others it might be an endearing alarm clock, a room spray, a loved photograph or a favourite book...

As a child at night I would never part from a piece of eiderdown from my baby days, that gradually turned ragged but that I would take anywhere on my sleep-overs. It was reassuring, protecting, terribly soft, a reminder of home and it magically sent me to sleep as a result (like some tactile lullaby!). Many an adult has a similar story involving a teddy bear, a doll or, like I, a humble piece of textile!

Your house, not (necessarily) my home: Living at someone's house means that freedom of choice and expression of personality are toned down, even suppressed. Communal living implies the fact that you have to abide by a set of rules. Even in the most laid-back commune, you will still have the odd rule to stick by.

Back at my parents, meal times are organised around their lives, which is completely acceptable of course but which may not always be suitable to me. Their life is organised into a well-rehearsed routine compared to mine back in England, and I've had to adapt my way of living in adequation to theirs, not necessarily to my liking but what can you do?

Back in England, I have no contact with those old annoying family friends, whereas here avoiding them is unavoidable at times... Compromises mean that you, the visitor/ guest (the intruder) lose your way a bit. You end up living a lie by pretending you (dis)like such-and-such singer/ politician/ design school/ fashion trend, in order to avoid family discord.

If 'home is where the heart is' this surely excludes places where you cannot be yourself, where things are done half-heartedly (cooking for the family is a good example in my case) in fear of the food critics that I am cooking for, where my original aim to show appreciation for their hospitality gets abnegated for a question of too little salt or too many raisins...But no matter what, home will always remain:

A pretty four-letter word: Full of promise, expectation and anticipation ('I want to go home!', 'I want to be home for Christmas...'), immortalised by stars of the silver screen (Think E.T.!) and other popular modern icons. Home is simply that final destination: a place of solace, a safety valve, an anchor point that helps you to charge up your batteries before facing the world again!

So there it is, the truth has hit home! Home is simply a beautiful place to be.

18 Aug 2010

Home Truths About What We Call a Home (Part 1)

A few home truths borne out of popular belief shape up the concept that we hone about the home, starting with the famous saying: 'An Englishman's home is his castle', emphasising the sacred character of our home, whether we live in a humble shack or a palatial estate, whether we rent it or buy it, whether it is a family inheritance or a brand new build, whether it represents us or is more impersonal.

This thought process started with the fact that I am currently, so to speak, living out of a suitcase, or more accurately at my parents' home. I am typing away on my brother's computer, sat on an uncomfortable 1930s chair in a crowded study that looks more like an attic, surrounded by things that are not mine in a house that doesn't represent me and with which my affinities are pretty limited. Although I am surrounded by loved ones and have my own room, space is restricted and cluttered with junk that is not my own. As harsh as that may sound, that house is not my home. And actually, come to think of it, it might not even be my parents' own home either as they have recently moved in, have had to compromise with some of the house aspects, and are still finding their feet. So then, what do people need for a house to feel like a home?

Make a House a Home (title borrowed from the eponymous TV make-over programme): A home is first of all a place where you can gather your thoughts, get some head space, organise your ideas and feel at ease and at peace with yourself. It is not just a physical shelter from the immediate elements of meteorological weather and other exterior threats, it is also an emotional one. It is a place where you unwind, you relax, you take stock of your day/ your week/ your life. You do your own thing unperturbed, you potter about without having to explain why you are doing what you're doing (unless you share your home with an awkward companion!). Home is where you feel comfortable, where you can slouch in your PJs at stupid o'clock in the afternoon with no-one to judge you about it. Home is where the heart is.

Home gives you a certain degree of freedom and room for manoeuvre. You personalise it your way, ideally surrounding yourself with objects that inspire you and/ or make you happy. If you are happy in your head, within you, then you'll find that you are happy in your home. You grow with your home, let's say from your romantic chintzy phase to a contemporary loft theme. Your home is a reflection of you and an extension of your personality to some degree, be it through your tidiness levels, style and ambience achieved, choice of artefacts, room lay-out, etc. Homeliness seems to be the secret ingredient that will help turn any type of dwelling into a home.

However the connection you have with the concept of home will not necessarily be linked to owning or renting the place. I have visited or stayed in houses that were so inviting in terms of design, style and welcome, that they made me feel at home virtually instantly. Even a good old pub can be homely, through its atmosphere and liveliness, friendly staff, its décor, a roaring fire or a pretty beer garden; all these factors that are going to entice you in, invite you to buy a drink and linger over it, enjoy your time, and come back again to relive the experience. Boutique hotels have cleverly capitalised on that very idea of homeliness as part of their marketing strategy to help differentiate themselves from the mass hotel market. (to be continued)

16 Aug 2010

In Concrete Terms (Part 2)

Corsica's most populated/ popular areas are in danger of becoming an extension to the Provence-Côte d'Azur sprawl: South Bastia (Furiani, Biguglia, Borgo, Lucciana), Costa Verde-Porto Vecchio, Calvi-Lumio, Ajaccio-Propriano, with the frenzy now reaching inland (Corte, Vescovato) and the more exclusive places of interest (Palombaggia, Rondinaria, Sperone).

Les Rivages de Calvi, advertised in local newspaper Corse-Matin (31/08/2010)
And with it, the sprawl mentality: a little slice of suburb in the sun, with or without a view, offering the trappings of urban comforts, plastic fantastic at heart, with no regard for/ no integration into the countryside or the countryside way of life. Instead those recent builds keep nature at arms length, concreted, fenced in, uninspiringly hedged with laburnum, privit or leylandi, or hastily walled by rows of breeze blocks. All alone in the world yet surrounded by it, individualists in search of the crowds who are the indirect accomplices of those greedy promoters and developers... For that little slice of suburb in the sun!

North of Bastia, property fever is also creeping in, along the Eastern Coast of the Cape, although the area has resisted pretty well compared to other parts of Corsica. Here and there we can't help but notice the residential carbuncle that, instead of morphing into the maquis, shows off its massive supporting walls and garrish/ flamboyant footballers' wives architecture from its unmissable vantage point (a parallel to those garrish Californian mountain-top villas that spoil the view and brag the brash!).

I also believe that some hillside apartment schemes (ex: in Santa Severa, pictured below) are equally at odds with the surrounding environment, while others (Les Jardins d'Erbalunga) have been keener to compromise by adhering to a more classic architectural style, using stone building materials, keeping to a low-rise format and tucking most of the development out of sight. Of course these little added luxuries come at a price for the buyer.

I am aware that there is a tangible need for housing, that tourism plays a crucial part in the island's economy (and necessitates adequate hotel, rental, leisure and transport infrastructures) and that we cannot turn back the clock (by pretending we are living in some museum!). However real estate must get real and make it more sustainable, by avoiding human concentration and sprawl polarisation. Members from regional and local governments must remain impartial and resist loopholes, abuse of power and personal gratifications that allow for illegal construction schemes to be erected with impunity. Also they must be provided with enough back-up from the State to help inland villages revitalise and fight desertification and for old/ derelict properties to benefit from incentivised subsidies towards renovation and modernisation.

By the way, Corsica has a fabulous built patrimoine (heritage) that is in acute need of a cash injection in order to preserve it and save it from that landslide slip into public oblivion. Heritage is not solely limited to housing, I am thinking about public, historical and religious buildings too. Within a 5-mile radius from where I live, I can easily think of at least 10 of such infrastructures in urgent need of a concerted intervention...

Source: Prints & Fine Arts (Roger Broders poster print)
You see, everyone seems to want the bright lights and the sea view yet not everyone is going to get them! The future of the island, the region, and the South of France as a whole is not going to be in the spreading sprawl. It is going to be in diversity of choice and offering. And in personal goodwill in favour of nature and future generations, i.e. without a selfish urge for that little slice of suburb in the sun!

15 Aug 2010

In Concrete Terms (Part 1)

Foreword: I am not interested in taking sides with who-did-what-when-where-for-how-much. I am trying to act on nature's behalf and ultimately in everybody's interest - in the long term. I am not affiliated to a party or a group in any way, shape or form. I am only a nature lover in fear of out-of-control builds. I also happen to have spent 99% of my life in towns and cities and know how alienating they can become and how important it is therefore to preserve our natural environment...

Corsica vs. the great property debate... Countless official and non-official publications have exhausted the topic and politicians have relished it as their pro-or-con battleground. Economists, business analysts, media commentators, university lecturers, pillars of the local community and good old Joe Public have all expressed opinions, pointed the finger and done the maths.

Stories regularly abound in the local press about the greed and excesses of unscrupulous promoters and developers alike who are acutely aware that they have reached France's very last frontier of unspoilt spaces (last few remaining!), an Eldorado within reach that they are ready to take full-on for that last megabucks finale! Hear-say tells us that elected members of certain local authorities have eased up the legalities, under duress or willingly, to enable property development on their territory. Certain government-appointed officials seem to have reinterpreted the law in favour of property schemes, while local environmental lobbies are literally fighting a losing battle, but their determination has set a precedent by helping to delay a property boom that could potentially ruin Corsica's natural assets.

Meanwhile, as a thin silver lining orbing the black cloud of greed and corruption, Conservatoire du Littoral, a governmental environment agency, favours a softly-softly approach, trying to conciliate ecology, economy, eco-tourism and sustained development; so far 18,000 hectares of land in Corsica have been placed under the Conservatoire's authority, with a pledge to preserve the natural habitats under its management against (further) human degradations.

Experts reckon that in terms of property boom, Corsica is 10 to 15 years behind the Côte d'Azur, which in itself is particularly worrying as it indicates only a small time gap (smaller than I believed it to be). A drive down the French Riviera and satellite megalopolises will give you an idea of the extent of the spread! At night from sea, you can't help but notice a concentrated constellation of lights - like a bad bout of eczema - along the coastline. An almost uninterrupted sprawl links towns and cities, and you end up losing track of where you are.

Travelling down South late one evening, and stopping over at a hotel we had randomly spotted off the motorway, we had no idea where we had landed. If there were any signage, it was confusing. Even the hotel's literature couldn't quite convince us as to where exactly we were. It turned out we had reached Aix-en-Provence, but it all seemed a blur. No landmark, no place of interest, not a sign of historical value that would give us a reassuring hint. We had landed in a residential sprawl, a sprawl too many, made up of housing estates laid out in a crazy paving sort of design, interspersed with the ubiquitous soul-less shopping parks that drain life out of city centres to inject it artificially into those outstretched suburbs, and all interlinked together by a confusing network of ring roads, 'A' roads and bridges.

The next day, looking for a petrol station in the neigbourhood, we appreciated the extent of that extended suburb, with its mish-mash of styles, tiered constructions and conflicting planning policies. It wasn't difficult to make out that only 10 years ago or so the countryside (urban countryside) had flourished where we were now standing, and across the road that wide tower-block coming off the ground was going to be the latest man-made barrier between the green mountain on the horizon and the sea of bitumen and concrete where we were stood... (to be continued)

10 Aug 2010

Caramel Cream Coffee Cups

Serves 5
Preparation: 20 mins
Cooking: 20 mins
Refrigeration: 3 hrs

It was never meant to be a pale assortment of creams and biscuits... I started off randomly picking the Caramel & Butter Mousse recipe from my mum's hundreds of magazine cuttings, for a number of simple reasons. First here was a mousse that was original: no chocolate involved! Then the coordination between caramel and butter sounded like an instant hit to me. Other brownie points: I had all the ingredients handy, and the prospect of a quick, easy and foolproof dessert (no rehearsal required!) was a must for that lazy Sunday lunch. Minimum fuss, minimum washing-up, maximum benefits, so why would I pass the chance? I'm sure you have gathered by now that I am no kitchen kamikaze!

Yet little did I know on that fateful day that I would end up rewriting the recipe completely after it started going wrong. Then the Mad Hatter's tea party theme from Alice in Wonderland developed from there. And that's how the originally planned Caramel & Butter Mousse metamorphosed into a rich fluffy cream with a hint of caramel... While I was at it, I also improvised some macaroons, which I fragranced with a splosh of Amaretto liqueur. Why? Because I could, and this was no kids party anyway!

For this dessert, I used agar-agar powder, a natural vegetable agent found in health shops, reputed for having 6 times the setting properties of traditional beef gelatine.
  • 1g agar-agar powder (vegetable gelling agent) or 6g sheet gelatine
  • 200g caster sugar (or, better still, its equivalent weight in sugar cubes)
  • 6 tablespoons cold water
  • 75cl double cream
  • 25g unsalted butter
  • 3 egg yolks, beaten
  • Pinch of salt (optional if using salted butter)
  • 5 teaspoons of pralin (crushed caramelised nuts otherwise known as pralines in France) + for sprinkling; or crushed amaretti biscuits
Place a plastic/ metal mixing bowl and the whisks of your electric whisk inside the freezer. If using gelatine, place it in a bowl of cold water.

Meanwhile put the sugar in a small saucepan and add 3 tablespoons of water. Heat up carefully until you eventually obtain a golden caramel, adding 3 more tablespoons of water as you go along (i.e. as the sugar starts sticking to the sides of the pan). Away from the heat, gradually add a third of the double cream, the butter and salt, and blend quickly together, ensuring proper dissolution of the caramel. Be sure to place the remainder of the double cream back in the fridge as you need it to be extra cold for later.

Still away from the heat, add the beaten egg yolks to the caramel sauce while whisking together. Be careful not to add the yolks with the pan heating up on the stove, as you could risk scrambling the yolks (if this did happen though, rescue the sauce by filtering it altogether, using a fine sieve, and then add another beaten yolk at the end of the process to compensate for any wastage).

Put the pan back on the heat to make the caramel sauce thicken for a couple of minutes. During this process, add the agar-agar (or gelatine - after pressing it carefully to remove excess water) while whisking constantly to ensure it doesn't reach boiling point. 

Then while you are leaving the caramel sauce to cool down, take the mixing bowl and whisks out of the freezer. Ensuring the remaining double cream is really cold, whip it up with the electric whisk until it becomes firm. Incorporate the whipped cream carefully and gradually to the sauce, swirling the two together. Scoop into fancy coffee cups, at the bottom of which you will have placed a teaspoon of pralin (or crushed amaretti biscuits). Refrigerate for a good 3 hours.

When ready to serve, sprinkle more pralin over the set creams (or finely dust with cocoa), and serve with my Soft Amaretto Macaroons, using the egg whites from this recipe. Or use the whites into meringues, flavoured with coffee extract, which you will crumble on top of the creams.

8 Aug 2010

Corsican Gastronomy - On the Menu (Part 2)

Pastaciutta: Pasta in a pot, but no Pot Noodles in sight! Barilla spagghetti cooked al dente, fresh tomato sauce made from scratch and livened up with garlic, bay leaf and wild marjoram picked on the day, strips of Corsican pancetta and Corsican smoked ham, all tossed together in mémé's loyal Le Creuset cast iron pot. A simple recipe, but only my grandma could get the proportions right and that resulting unmissable taste.

Ratatouille Corse: Here is one dish that the average cook thinks they can make, but that a series of shortcuts and misinformation will result in a pastiche. Ratatouille shouldn't be that soggy, bland boiled veg affair we have been made to accept as truth. It should be made in a deep heavy frying pan (not a saucepan and please no lids on as the aim is not to sweat the veg!), you should use olive oil (forget the other types), and be generous with it (veg should be coated). Plenty of seasoning and no skipping the garlic and marjoram (the latter tied up as twigs into a bouquet garni).

As for the veg used in the Corsican ratatouille, there's only two (therefore put those courgettes, peppers and onions back in the fridge): fresh tomatoes and aubergine, peeled. Now for the demystification: no matter the advice from the TV chefs, I would recommend that you still saturate the strips of peeled aubergine in good old sea salt for a good hour, before pressing them (mémé used to wring them out like they were drenched cloths) to extract every last bit of juice and bitterness.

Pasticciu: A rich and consistent egg cream with a swirl of homemade dark liquid caramel, that ended many a Sunday lunch on a high note, served with cuggiollele or canistrelli and a glass of sweet Muscat from the Cape (whose honeydew-like grapes taste like they are bursting on the palate with every sip).

Beignets à la Farine de Châtaigne: A time-saver of a treat, featuring only two ingredients, chestnut flour from the Castagniccia (the Chestnut grove region of Corsica) and water, blended together, blobs of the resulting mix deposited in a shallow fat fryer (a deep heavy frying pan with a good inch of hot cooking oil will suffice) and cooked on both sides, before blotting on kitchen towel. Serve with a sprinkle of caster sugar. Couldn't be simpler!

7 Aug 2010

Corsican Gastronomy - On the Menu (Part 1)

My inspiration for this article will take me back to my souvenirs of mémé, and how in that modest rustic Corsican kitchen of hers, using her ancient yet foolproof kitchen utensils, simple wholesome tried-and-tested family recipes from her elders, and local produce from her trusted local butcher and marchande de légumes (a travelling van that used to deliver a selection of Corsican fruit & veg to the Cape), she would operate her magic.

Her magic could - should - silence the self-important superstar TV cooks, presumptuous Michelin chefs, hyped-up blogging kings and queens who are kidding us into believing that they have indeed reinvented the wheel, when all they have mostly produced is a waff of hot air on the media circuit.

Patience was my grandma's virtue: if a hotpot was supposed to bubble away for three hours, so be it, there was no cutting down time, no shortcuts, because this would alter the taste, full stop. She was also resourceful and pragmatic, whipping up a meal with a few ingredients and using leftovers. The secret to her talent was to cook with heart, this was no half-hearted affair. She relished in anticipation of the effect her cuisine would produce on her guests, and man, did it work!

She was a grandma to be proud of, and  I know I could carry on for the rest of this blog's existence, writing pages about her and rekindling her memory, but these would only be words to you, for unless you have known her, it is difficult to picture what a character she was. I hope this sort of grandma still exists today, and if yours resembles the description of mine, do drop me a line.

Now time to get back to our subject and find below a list of the Corsican dishes mémé used to delight us with (and that you have every right to expect from any self-proclaimed speciality restaurant on the island):

Aïola: This delightfully tasty one-meal soup is on a par with the delicious 'Puchero de Zanahorias' which I had the privilege to taste over 25 years ago, at an off-the-tourist-radar workers' canteen in Malaga where a friend of my auntie used to take us, for its cheap yet flavoursome homemade meals. Aïola, like puchero, was originally the soup of the poor, but don't let this patronising tag fool you. To me, aïola stands above the most poncey veloutés and delicate consommés of this world. A clear stock with fresh Corsican tomato slices, potato cubes, fresh white haricot beans, fresh Corsican marjoram stalks, garlic and an egg per person, poached in the stock. Vitamins à gogo and a party in your plate!

Soupe au Pistou: Here is another liquid culinary delight bursting with vitamins and aromas (pictured above). This Provençal hearty dish is a staple of traditional Corsican cuisine: a carrot, courgette, bean and potato soup livened up by a bewitching combination of fresh whole Corsican basil leaves, crushed garlic and a spoonful of olive oil. Believe me, this warm soup is actually quite refreshing and therefore appropriate for Summer dinning.

Soupe de Poissons de Roche: There is no point visiting an island if, at least once, you do not taste the local fish. Mémé would boast that her fish soup was nicer than restaurant fish soup for she only used the noble part of the fish (i.e. no heads or tails). Her soup consisted of a variety of small local fish (according to the catch), from rougets to girelles, keeping the bigger elements for frying (for another meal). She added fresh tomato and wild marjoram to the stock before sieving and blending. Small fish being what they are (i.e. bony!), you had to expect the odd sneaky bone in your soup bowl (despite all of mémé's care).

Aïoli: Not to be confused with aïola, this garlic mayonnaise is the perfect accompaniement to fresh langouste (lobster) and fried fish. Meanwhile rouille is its spiced-up rusty-looking counterpart. (to be continued)

2 Aug 2010

Corsican Gastronomy - Delicatessen (Part 2)

Amateurs of robust cheese will plump for locally-produced fromage de brebis, while the bravest will up the ante with Corso, but beware as the cheese will start developing a rather pungent smell as it matures! The safer option will definitely be Brocciu (Brousse), an aromatic creamy fromage frais similar to mascarpone that I use in cheesecakes (as an alternative filling), and that is a key ingredient in the insular pâtisserie, the Fiadone (and its mini-version known as Fiadonette, pictured below), a lemon-scented brocciu-filled pastry. For a savoury option, and if given the chance, why not try Ravioles à la Brousse (brocciu ravioli).

Apart from Fiadone(-tte), more pastry delights will await you at the local bakery, namely Canistrellis (aniseed or hazelnut-flavoured biscuits that are usually dipped in coffee), Cugolu (a boomerang-shaped aniseed-flavoured pastry that is also dipped in coffee), Cuggiolelle (sweet white wine biscuits), lemon-scented Frappi (a cross between a doughnut and a churros), and other variations.

Brioche is also well celebrated on the island, as Brioche au Sucre, an individual sugar-topped round brioche, or its oblong-shaped version, Pannette (also available with raisins). Besides be prepared to find innovative interpretations of traditional recipes, such as savoury bite-size canistrellis (olive or onion-flavoured) perfect with pre-dinner drinks, which are produced in the resort of Macinaggio (under Les Délices de Capo Bianco).

Chestnut-flour-based cakes are likely to be found in this blog, in local delis (and even supermarkets which, for many years, have been keen to stock local produce). Nougats, mountain honey and unusual fruit jams (watermelon, melon, mandarine, cédrat, arbouses, chestnut) will be handy to fly back home.

Finally there is an array of beverages designed to quench your thirst or prolong the holiday spirit well into the night, from local mineral/ spring waters (Zilia, St Georges, Orezza), lemonades (Carina Limunata, Oro) and Damiani cordials, to AOC* wine (white, Muscat, rosé, red, and the port-like Rappu wine derived from the Aléatico grape), with Patrimonio, Plaine Orientale and Cap Corse as the main wine producers.

Pastis Dami (Corsica's answer to Pernod), Cap Corse Mattei (a vermouth/ fortified wine), and chestnut-flavoured lager Pietra are guaranteed to jazz up your après-ski/ pool-house soirées. The island is also reputed for its strong liquors with an acquired taste: Cédratine, Myrte, Châtaigne (chestnut). Novices will find it easier to stick to Mandarine Impériale or Limoncellu (both of which also enter in the preparation of a number of desserts and refreshing cocktails).

Food taste is a matter of opinion, so why not forge your own by experimenting with those new or reinvented flavours, and decide for yourself. Whether it be sweet or savoury, earthy, traditional or adapted to the modern palate, derived directly from the terroir (land) or transformed, there is a food product for every taste, in Corsica. Enjoy!

* AOC = Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée

1 Aug 2010

Corsican Gastronomy - Delicatessen (Part 1)

To begin with, here is a universal truth: when in a typical tourist resort, authentic food specialities will not be found in the most obvious places, i.e. down the neon-streaked, fume-choked main road, sandwiched between the usual tourist trap shops and stalls (identified by their plastic made-in-China 'local' trinkets, dodgy postcards, overpriced bottles of local spirit that have been sitting in the sun day after day, the badly-translated holiday guides that have gathered more than their share of dust, etc.).

Fine Corsican food hamper, Bastia

The authentic will be found off the beaten track. In Venice, why settle for a coffee on the San Marco Plazza that cuts right into your daily budget, when the one ten minutes away will taste probably nicer for half the price and half the snobbery? In Sidari, why put up with nasty fast food, when an unassuming Greek taverna in nearby Perouladès will serve you the best mezze? In New York, why follow the crowds, when a wander round the block could take you to that hidden gem of a deli? The same applies to Corsica.

It pains me to witness those tourist trap restaurants dishing out the mediocrity of world cuisine to the holidaymaker on a budget or in a rush: paella, couscous, stuffed crêpes, spagghetti carbonara, steak and chips, lazy salads, greasy burgers, with often the only dish affiliated to Corsican gastronomy being soupe de poissons (fish soup), friture (catch of the day), or assiette de charcuterie corse (Corsican antipasti).

Hotel La Villa (Calvi, Corsica)

Meanwhile upmarket restaurants are often more preoccupied with presentation than substance, losing the remote Corsican theme into an artshow, balancing that slice of confied chestnut onto the tiny medallion of foie gras, the latter strategically placed on a designer presentation plate between two perfectly-formed carat-sized drops of premium arbouse jelly set against a constellation of champagne espuma... You get the picture. Yet traditional local fayre needn't be out of reach, expensive, fiddly or fuddy-duddy.

While not claiming to provide a comprehensive list of traditional food products you can expect to find on the island (with maybe a bit of detective work involved), this article will give you a general guideline, and hopefully tantalise your taste buds!

If there were only one speciality to try (vegetarians, please look away now!), it would have to be the incredibly tasty smoked, seasoned pork-based Corsican charcuterie that is fairly reminiscent in taste of the Italian dried pork meats: Prisuttu (Corsican ham, slightly darker and thicker than Parma ham), Lonzo, Coppa (both smaller versions of the Prisuttu), Saucisse Corse (a peppery aromatic saucisson sec), Pancetta (strictly nothing to do with the so-called Italian pancetta that UK supermarkets churn out!). You will also be able to purchase wafer-thin Parma ham.

Figatelli pork sausages are a winter culinary must, preferably cooked on an open fire (or be prepared for a lot of smoke in the kitchen) and pressed with their juices between two slices of freshly-baked bread, and you have the Ford Mustang of hot dogs, according to I. Other deli staples will include speciality meat pâtés (mainly wild board or black bird), Corsican olive oil and pistou (pesto). (to be continued)

P.S: Further observations on Corsican charcuterie from The New Gastronomes