21 May 2010

Treats of Nature (Part 1)

Corsica may be bathed by the Mediterranean wonders of blue yonder, its configuration as an island exposes it to extremes of climatic elements. These include the winds (no less than five breezy gang members and familiar visitors to the Cape, called Mistral, Tramuntane, Libeccio, Grégale and Sirocco) who are known to make a racket down the shores and break different degrees of havoc (dislodging loose rocks off the cliff face, uprooting trees, propagating forest fires).

Beware the so-called mild winters, for temperatures are known to sink below 0°C, with a crafty frost to drive you round the bend. With its elevated Alpine altitudes, the centre of the island boasts a couple of ski resorts that emphasise further the diversity of activity offerings. As for Summers, they take heat to high levels and carelessness could land you into hot trouble, health-wise!

All of the above criteria are bravely embraced by the indigenous vegetation of Corsica. Plants here are not allowed to be shrinking violets! They need to be harsh, resilient, resistant, adaptable to meteorological variations, preferably well-rooted, with no drink problem and a liking of rocky terrains... You will find enchanting alpines, carpets of succulents, rampant grasses, thorny ivy, spiky bushes, prickly shrubs, stocky trees, a vast majority of evergreens, thick leaves, robust trunks and dense wood aplenty.

Beyond its apparent roughness and rusticity, the nature of Corsica is also generous and reveals edible treasures all year round, some of which even boast medical properties. The lychee-resembling fruit from the arbousiers (strawberry trees) matures just in time for Christmas for the eponymous jellies and jams. In February/ March, thin yet incredibly aromatic stalks of wild asparagus found in the undergrowth will ravish palates. Wild leeks are another delicacy (the cultivation of leeks in the Cape is fairly recent). If your idea of a green salad revolves around iceberg lettuce or lollo rosso, it is time to go wild with native varieties of plantago, radiccio and dandelion.

Amateurs of aromatic herbs will be particularly rewarded by the rosemary clumps found on exposed rocks. Wild thyme, mint and marjoram are harder to locate, but the effort is worthwhile as their intense flavour and  taste will make you disregard the shop-bought dried varieties. Just make sure not to pull roots or take away more than a couple of twigs. Nature may be generous but its generosity is within limits!

Do not be fooled by ferula's resemblance to fennel!

Fennel stalks that mature in the Summer are commonly found on banks and grass verges and fill the air with a sweet aniseed aroma, reminiscent of the Pastis apéritif. Angelica is another treasure: my ancestors used to infuse its stalks into a liqueur; whereas candied angelica will add a little 'je ne sais quoi' to the most trivial fruit cake (a welcome alternative to raisins, currants and candied cherries). Meanwhile myrtle, a fragrant maquis* by-product, is distilled into a liqueur that symbolises the spirit of Corsica, quite literally!

* The untranslated word maquis will regularly occur in my blog. It specifically refers to the Corsican scrub: thick dense evergreen shrub vegetation that doesn't exceed 2 metres in height. This wildlife haven is mostly found in the island's coastal and sub-alpine regions. It is colourful in Spring and aromatic in Summer, diffusing that distinctive fragrance that epitomises Corsica beautifully. (to be continued)

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