In fact, Jean brought us a case of wine, vegetables from his garden, and possibly some steaks. I made us all dinner on the patio and I don’t remember what all it included, but it did include a big salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, which Jean refused to eat. He didn’t eat salad.
We learned that he hunted boar and raised vegetables and grapes, and his family made wine. He was vehemently anti-money. “Here we don’t need money; we already have everything we need,” as he liked to say. He apparently lived in the US for a stretch, as a professor I think Doug said, and his opinion of it was summed thusly: “In the United States people always ask: ‘what do you do for a living’ and I think, what kind of a question is that? But I say, ‘I breathe, that’s what I do for a living.'”
He showed us where the hidden beach was, through the forest behind the little resort, and we found even more wandering around on our own. Corsica is full of tiny little beaches, and every one is different: one was in a little bay and had coarse tan sand like small pebbles. One was rocky and wooded practically up to the shoreline. One had white sand that cattle slept upon. But the best beach of all was long and broad and white, and the water was safe to swim in. Near this beach was where the oursin were found.
Jean kept telling us about the oursin, and we kept asking, until one day he came by with the supplies: a bag of baguettes, some bottles of his family’s rosé, a couple of rib steaks, a rubber bucket, another bucket with a clear bottom, and a three-tined hook at the end of a long wooden handle. We walked from the little resort down a rutted dirt road toward the “secret” beach. It just so happened that a bunch of young German tourists, who had recently (and annoyingly) arrived in a bus, were also walking down the road to the beach (not such a secret anymore). We hung back to let them all pass, and Jean swung his fork at their backs and cursed and muttered under his breath, something like: “you stay the fuck away from my fucking spot!”
We took a little trail off to the side of the road which led steeply through a scrubby forest to a little clearing where a grate rested on a fire ring of small boulders. Just a few steps from here was a little cove where the water was relatively calm, and perfectly clear. Standing at the edge it dropped off immediately to two or three feet. The bottom was covered with spiny urchins stuck to the innumerable small boulders strewn across the bottom.
Jean took his shoes and camo off, put on a wetsuit, and waded out with the clear bottom bucket, the other bucket, and the hook. It looked easy. He just looked through the bucket and used the hook to scoop the oursin from the rocks before plopping them into the other bucket. After he scooped a few, I wanted try it. So I waded out in my sneakers and Jean handed over the tools. I located an urchin, took a step toward it, and slipped on the rock underfoot. My sneaker followed the incline till it met the adjacent rock, and the urchin stuck to its side.
“Give me that back. You have to be careful!,” Jean scolded me, and he shooed me out of the water.
Back to the shore I limped, defeated. I pulled off my shoe, and there were about a half dozen spines stuck, fortunately, in the callous on the side of my foot, just behind my big toe. Jean finished up and came back with a haul that makes the little uni plate at the sushi restaurant look downright mean-spirited.
“You have to take those out of there, or it will get” he searched for the word, “infected.”
I got most of them out, but the others were just stuck. Jean eventually changed his mind and said it would probably be fine and sent us to gather some wood for the grill. Soon we had a little blaze of tinder going.
“You’re the chef, right?” Jean asked me.
“Yeah, I can cook.”
“Cook these steaks then.”
“You have any salt?” I asked.
“How could I forget the salt?,” Jean opined.
“That’s okay, we can just splash some wine on ’em.”
“Maybe that will be good,” Jean agreed hopefully.
In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t just dip them in the sea a couple of times. Still, they were pretty good: French beef, cooked rare over Corsican brush, splashed with a little acidic rosé.
Meanwhile, Jean took a pair of garden shears and started lopping the tops off the oursin. He didn’t use a glove either. When he had opened a few he showed us: tear off a piece of baguette, take an oursin in hand, and scoop the insides. Shove the whole thing in your mouth.
The inside of an oursin plucked straight from the sea is not just the bright orange dollop you get on top of a sushi roll; it’s a bunch of that stuff (gonads—would that our gonads were such a large part of our bodies!) sauced with a liquid slightly thicker than seawater flecked with green confetti. My experience in restaurants had been that you rinse all that gross shit out of there and eat the sweet orange meat. So I started to do that.
“What are you doing?,” Tonton Jean asked.
“I don’t like the green stuff,” I said.
Tonton Jean scooped his urchin, held up the chunk of dripping baguette, and said, “salad, Mike,” before stuffing it in his face. So I started eating them that way too. It was fine so long as you took a drink of rosé directly after.
After we ate and drank all the steak and wine, as much oursin as we could hold, with just enough baguette to scoop, sitting on the rocks, in that spot of tree shade protecting us from the fierce Mediterranean sun, everyone felt very tired. Jean succumbed to that early-rising hunter’s instinct, put his hat over his face, his sweater next to a tree trunk, and laid down to nap. The rest of us were still too excited by the vitality of the experience. We sat and watched that cool blue water ripple over the beds of purple oursin, speechless with beauty.