Can one meal reveal the soul of a place?
As I sailed around the corner I saw goats. Dozens of them. Bucks, does, bucklings, doelings, kids, maybe even a wether. They were black, brown, white, gray plus all manner of mottled variations. Clearly, someone had collected the whole set. And while most of them hung to the cliff side of the road, it’s also accurate to say they were all over the road. Trying to thread my way through them at full speed, while theoretically possible, wasn’t what we’d call prudent.
So why did I want to zoom through a flock of goats? Simple. I was on a bike tour of the French island of Corsica and this was the third flock I’d seen that day. I didn’t need to stop yet again to hear them bleat. Besides, they were, to my cyclist’s mind, interrupting a fantastic descent, something I’d come to love about this mountainous outpost.
Then a funny thing happened, a doe with swollen udders skipped across the road and my mind flitted from goat to milk to cheese. Ah, cheese. Of the many things I’d expected in touring Corsica, I hadn’t considered what the local food would be like. I’d expected cool mountain roads that dropped toward the Mediterranean at four and five percent grades. I’d expected corniches carved from the sedimentary rock of which Corsica is made. I’d expected dramatic cliffside views that would regale me with old-world majesty. And I knew I’d visit hilltop villages with histories that go back more than a thousand years.
Seriously, though, I’d never really considered the food. I was on a bike tour, not a culinary adventure, but on our first day I had a meal that became an existential meditation.
Um, sandwich jambon?
C’est finis, aussi.
Okay, so they were out of pasta and the ham sandwich. And there were only six or eight items on the menu, and soup wasn’t going to do it for me. Not with 30 kilometers left to ride.
Salade chevre chaud?
Oui. Salade chevre chaud.
Hot sheep’s cheese salad. I didn’t know what to expect and I worried that it might not be enough calories to get me back to our ship, but I trusted the cheese would be good.
About one of those previous nouns, ship. I was on a cycling tour that used a cruise ship as its mobile hotel. A genius concept, really. Wake up in the morning, have breakfast, roll out for a fun ride, have lunch along the way and then roll into a different dock in the afternoon. Every day was a new point-to-point ride. But it did mean that if you wanted to enjoy local cuisine, you had to make lunch count.
The fact that we were faced with a lack of selection had been our fault. I was riding with two Germans from our cruise and Wolfgang, as one of the guides of the trip, had stopped several times to help other riders with mechanicals. We rolled into the village of Speloncato approaching 2:00, what I’ll guess was moments before lunch itself would have been finis.
My salad was a presentation fit for the French Laundry. I’m not one to photograph my food, but it occurred to me that this plate was too beautiful not to shoot. Four slices of warmed sheep’s cheese sat atop squares of toast which had been arranged on top of a bed of lettuce flecked with chestnuts and thin morsels of bacon misted with the lightest vinaigrette and walled into a diagonal across the plate with the entirety of a sliced tomato, which, it’s worth noting, was exactly ripe.
I sat slack-jawed with wonder. How could a plate so beautiful occur in a town so small it had but one restaurant, one bar and one Tabac? Who puts this much care into a salad? A salad!
Three bites in, I looked up and said to my friends, “This may be the finest salad of my life.” What my eye hadn’t caught was that the toast had been sheened with honey and the sweet of the honey played against the savory of the cheese, the bacon and the vinaigrette, doing that which makes Indian food so famous: overwhelming your senses with flavor.
I kept looking around the town from the patio on which we sat. Teen girls—glasses, T-shirts, no makeup and cigarettes—chatted about something crucial. Two older couples at a table next to us lingered on their vin rouge. Locals at the bar drank, smoked. The fountain in the middle of the town ran with water from some nearby and ancient source. I’d fill my bottles there before rolling out.
What I was looking for was something to betray the town’s greatness. Something to convince me that I underestimated this place, something—anything—to help me comprehend how food so good could come from such a backwater little bistro. Speloncato’s population numbers in the hundreds. And this café had just served me a salad better than any I’d ever eaten stateside.
Maybe that was the key. When you strip away everything else, the shopping, the traffic, the careers (what the hell do these people do?), what’s left is life. And what is life, but food?
This was originally published in issue #46 (April, 2017) of the unfortunately defunct Bicycle Times, a sister publication to Rotating Mass Media’s Dirt Rag.