Friday, 20 February 2009

Sun, sea and salt

The sun on your skin has to be one of the most sensual experiences ever. Warmth in the air and salt on the sea breeze. Gulls wheel above, flying and shrieking as though out of nothing but joy.

A friend sent me some extracts from Mark Kurkansky’s excellent Salt: a world history this morning, and managed to turn my mind straight away to the south of France; to Languedoc-Roussillon, to the Mediterranean coast, to the vast salt pans visible from plane or train and, most of all, to Collioure.

The little port, nestling below the Pyrénées, has two claims to fame: anchovies and art. The art in question is Fauvism – Matisse thought the light there the most beautiful in the world. The little fish were integral to the village’s economy; salted and dispatched to various parts of the world, valued as the finest anchovies anywhere.

Just reading about it made me long to be back there. The pebbled beaches leave the Mediterranean crystal clear. Venture in and fish will soon be swimming around your legs. Don a snorkel and goggles and float, face down, gazing into a different world; a world where sunlight, refracted through the water, glistens all around.

Keep your eyes open and watch: spot the tiniest of lifeforms shifting around in their shells; creatures scooting out of sight behind rocks as the seabed falls away and weeds sway languorously below. Daurade as big as dinner plate and busy shoals of multi-coloured smaller fish go about their business.

Stay still: let your body stop. And just watch.

Wander along the narrow, winding streets of brightly painted houses: admire the art – there’s plenty of it. Sit at any one of the seafront cafés and watch the world go by. Banish any timepieces.

Lunch on anchovies and olives, or sardines charred on an open grill right next to the beach and stuffed between bread with the fingers. Dine on squid dipped into unctuous aïoli or tuna with ripe tomatoes and fresh bread dipped into virgin oil, squeezed from the groves on the surrounding hills. Drink the sweet, local Banyuls to start, before moving on to a carafe of the house rosé. Perfection in simplicity.

Relax and let the place rub away all the stress and the tensions of modern living. And still the sun; blissfully hot, caressing the skin; the water, lapping the shore, and the blue, blue sky overhead.

The end of February nears. It’s still chilly in London, although milder than for some weeks. Time for winter to end. I need the sun on my back and the salt in my nostrils again.

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