There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Out to Lunch in Corsica, Tamil Nadu and the Western Desert

I do like eating. I also have a sad tendency to photograph my lunch, or have myself photographed eating it, or to photograph my companions eating theirs. It may be mildly weird, but it is (probably) nothing to be ashamed of, so here come three lunches Lynne and I have enjoyed in various places at various times.

Spiny Lobster, Cargèse, Corsica, July 2006

It is hard to believe this blog has reached its 77th post and this is the first mention of our nearest neighbour. We have probably been to France more often than any other country, but we have visited less often of late, being seduced by more exotic locations - Vietnam, coming up next month - or previously unexplored parts of Europe - The Baltics last year, the Balkans next May.

And now I have turned my attention to France, it is not to the mainland but to the beautiful if occasionally rebellious island of Corsica. I cannot be certain that Corsica is the only unspoiled Mediterranean island left, but I know of no others. Corsica has its own language (though everybody speaks French too) and its own very distinctive cuisine.

Cargèse, on the west coast of Corsica
Unusually for an island, the traditional Corsican diet did not involve fish. With the low lying east coast a malarial swamp and the rocky west coast plagued by pirates the Corsicans turned their backs on the sea and lived among the mountains. The chestnut forests provided their flour and polenta, the sheep provided their pungent cheeses, several of which the UN have officially designated as WMD, and their meat came from the demi-sauvage black pigs which roam everywhere - and from wild boar in the hunting season.

Pirates and malaria, though, are problems long banished - from the Mediterranean, a least. The island’s capital is no longer the hill town of Corte, but the port of Ajaccio, and seafood has joined pork on the island's dinner tables.  In the small coastal town of Cargèse, some 30 km north of Ajaccio, spiny lobster features on the menu of every restaurant. It is never cheap, two spiny lobsters and a bottle of Corsica’s crisp, clean dry rosé cost over €100, but it is good to treat yourself occasionally. And you do at least get a long lunch for your money; it takes time to ferkle out all the meat from the various parts of the crustacean, even using the special ferkling instruments provided.

About to tackle a spiny lobster

It is a weird looking beast with plenty of spines, but no claws. It may be the size and – very roughly – the shape of a lobster but it actually tastes more like a crab – and that is no bad thing.

South Indian Thali, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, Feb 2009

Most of the citizens of India’s southernmost states are vegetarian, and a Thali is a perfect introduction to the local cuisine. A thali consists of a tray holding several (in this case eleven) small metal bowls each containing a different vegetable curry. Rice and a poppadum or chapatti are dumped in the middle, the rice being replenished as often as required. Thali is available everywhere and costs anything from 50 to 500 rupees. The quality of the food varies little, the difference relates to the surroundings in which you eat. More upmarket restaurants will also sell beer but elsewhere you make do with a bottle of water. For a little extra upmarket restaurants offer meat or fish thalis, which means a slice of meat or fish is balanced on top of the rice. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with most vegetarian dishes cannot be improved by a slice of ham, but thalis are an exception to that rule; they are absolutely complete in themselves and need nothing extra.

Eating a Thali, Paristhuram Hotel restaurant, Thanjavur
Posh enough for a beer and a table cloth, humble enough to be cheap

It is not always entirely clear what the vegetables are, partly because many are unfamiliar, and partly because they are less important than the spices. The difference in spicing from bowl to bowl, the richness of the combinations and the subtlety in variation is a delight. One bowl usual contains what might be called a dessert, often tapioca sweetened with jaggery and laced with cardamom.  I remember being given tapioca pudding as a child and hating it; it has long disappeared from the menus of childhood but if it had only been this way, then things might have been different.

Lunch at Cleopatra’s Restaurant, Bawiti, Egypt, Nov 2009

Bawiti is the main settlement in the Bahariya Oasis some 360 km across the Western Desert from Cairo.

The morning commute, Bawiti

Apparently Cleopatra runs a restaurant there now, which must be less stressful than being Queen of Egypt. It is not a big restaurant - indeed this is the only table - nor does it have much of a menu, offering a choice of ‘meat or chicken.’ There is also rice and potatoes, salad and bread. No one would accuse the cooking of being complex or innovative, it is simple stuff but done as well as simple stuff can be.

The table at Cleopatra's Restaurant, Bawiti
Lynne with Mohammed (our driver, near camera) and Araby (linguist, egyptologist and all round good egg)

The vegetables we buy at Tescos - or wherever - are varieties bred to look good, be disease resistant and of a consistent size. They are then treated to ensure they have the maximum possible shelf life. Nowhere in the process is consideration given to how they might taste. I have no idea where Cleopatra’s patron buys his supplies, it may or may not be the El (or Al) Senbad Supermarket, but wherever it is, it is somewhere that lacks the ‘benefits’ of Tescoid civilization. His potatoes tasted like potatoes, his cucumbers like cucumbers and his tomatoes were not just a glass of water in a shiny red skin.

El Senbad Supermarket, Bawiti

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