Oursin

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Flip Flops purchased in Ajaccio, France for appr. 7 euro, in 2006.

I have long been under the impression that Facebook is a nothing more than a thinly disguised way to waste time. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. We all need ways to waste time.

But I’m not just wasting time; I’m actually honing my status update to a razor’s edge. Facebook isn’t all dictatorial like Twitter, but people don’t want to read a manifesto on there. People want brevity, concision, acronyms. And just the other day (like three months ago) it finally paid off.

I follow (or like, or whatever the fuck) Saveur magazine, and they shared a contest being held by Lonely Planet’s social media czars— Share a story, in 50 words or less, about your most memorable culinary travel experience. So I wrote:

In Corsica we hooked purple sea urchins from crystal water and, sitting in the shade of the scrubby shore pines, lopped off their tops. We scooped their buttery, briny flesh with chunks of baguette and washed it down with Tanto Jean’s rose. Then we slept on the sand.

And, despite the fact that I don’t know how to spell “tonton” (a term of endearment that nominally means “uncle”), I won an autographed copy of Fork in the Road, a collection of  short travel narratives written by some famous food writers, edited by James Oseland of Saveur magazine, and published by Lonely Planet. Gael Greene signed it, other than that I cannot discern.

I considered reviewing the book here, but I sent a pitch off to Saveur some weeks ago and I’m sure they’re busily poring over this blog right now, hungry for my every word, and that review might dampen my chances of being immortalized in their pages (Thanks for the book guys!). But how we came to be eating oursin on that beach involved a stroke of luck so singular and improbable that it seems, in retrospect, like it may not have actually happened.

Years ago, while we were getting to know Europe, our good friend Doug, through whom we first met, was getting to know his Corsican roots. So he picked us up from the ferry in Ajaccio in a rented Peugeot. We drove the Peugeot around the island for a couple of days, and Doug accidentally filled the diesel car with gasoline, stranding us for a night as we waited for a mechanic to come on duty who could drain the tank. When we finally got the car back to the rental agency, Tonton Jean razzed Doug for “putting water in the car,” then harassed the rental agency to refund the portion of Doug’s money that they charged for the late return. At first they refused, but Tonton Jean, cursing and seething, said some things in French that apparently led them to reconsider.

He drove a little Citroen truckette, which is kind of a cross between a pickup truck and a van. There are no seats in the low-clearance bed, like in a pickup truck, but the canopy is integral to the body, and the bed and cab are contiguous, as in a van. Leona sat in the passenger seat, while Doug and I sat in back, atop the wheel wells.

“So, I think these guys wanted to go camping,” Doug started. Indeed, we had been trudging an overabundance of largely useless camping gear across over-civilized Europe. Corsica, we saw, had deep forests, inaccessible mountains and ravines, and wide swaths of semi-desert coast.

“Camping,” Jean said, as if he were just turning the word over in his mind.

“Yeah, I think they were hoping you might know of someplace.”

Jean pulled a pack of Marlboro full flavored’s from his shirt pocket, put one in his mouth, and offered one to Leona.

“Smoke?”

She accepted, smiling.

“We smoke. These guys,” Jean tilted his chin toward the back, “they don’t smoke.”

Then they both laughed.

So we just sat as Jean drove through Sartene, where he lived, then back out onto roads wending through forests, up and down hills. We weren’t actually ready to camp at that very moment. We didn’t even have any toilet paper. A parking lot improbably appeared in the wilderness. How very European!

“Camping?”

“Yes, camping,” we dumbly nodded, bewildered, and maybe a little frightened. The Corse are known for their fierce determination to protect their island’s character from foreign uglification, and this guy wears camo daily. He’s old and slender, but grizzled and tough as the Corsican boars he apparently hunted in his ample free time. I was pretty ridiculous with my oversize backpack and cheap flip flops. From the parking lot all we could see was a brick wall, partially obscured by trees and brush.

He led us down a narrow concrete path behind the building, then took a left down a path toward the front. We stepped out onto a large terra cotta patio, and took in a view of the forested hills rolling down to the turquoise sea maybe a mile away, and a little terra cotta fireplace in the wall to one side of the patio. Jean pulled out a key.

“Camping,” he announced, before leading us into the sliding glass entrance, startling a cleaning lady. He showed us the kitchen and two bedrooms, one on the main floor and a larger one upstairs.

Still bewildered, Leona started, “We can’t afford this….”

“You don’t need money. This guy owes me a favor,” was Jean’s first lesson for us.

We did need food. We mentioned this to him, and he seemed not to have noticed.

So after we unburdened ourselves, we piled back into the Citroen and headed down toward the sea. Just around the bend we came to a little vacation town. It was the off season, so most things were closed, but Jean pulled up to a little restaurant that was still open. We got a pizza and some wine. Jean ordered Pastis, which he seemed to live on. Another day, I asked him if he ever drank water, and he pointed to the little water decanter served with the Pastis, for mixing. We got another bottle of wine to take back with us. We tried to pay, but the proprietor threw his hands up, and took a step back. Jean urged us to put it away, and not offer anymore.

Heading back in the clear, coastal twilight, Jean explained that around here, favors were currency, as they placed demands on the receiver.

“But tomorrow, we’ll show him. I’ll bring a whole case of wine!”

To be continued…