A Brief Summary of Corsican Cuisine
We felt almost obligated to visit this stunning island; it’s the favourite vacation place of people living in Provence. You’ll often notice the stickers still proudly displayed on many cars here from the Marseille-Corsica ferry. We still have ours! We figured that if the people from the already beautiful place that is Provence overwhelmingly choose a specific place to relax- that place has got to be something else. After 3 weeks last autumn of nonstop landscapes combining mountains, turquoise ocean and hearty cuisine, we were not disappointed.
Don’t Mess with the Corsicans
Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon, is an island of harsh contrasts. The history of the island is violent with family vendettas, often killing off large swaths of their own population, very conservative in religion, especially where women are concerned, and a rotating dominance of various other Mediterranean powers due to the island’s strategic location in the Mediterranean. The Corsicans are often thought of as a little rough around the edges, someone you certainly wouldn’t want to pick a fight with. This is only accentuated by their often deep voices and unique accent. Corsicans are a proud people with a strong separatist movement, though are more than happy to show you the natural beauty of their island.
Reading about the history of this French territory will greatly contribute to your experience of the island. I read the classic Granite Island; A Portrait of Corsica by Dorothy Carrington. For a less detailed history, I suggest you find the interesting book Tempi Fa by Pierre Jean Luccioni which details traditional culinary and building methods of the island, many of which are still in use today.
A Cuisine of Simplicity
Due to all the invasions of Romans, Pisans and the Genoans as well as a high rate of malaria on the coast, Corsicans retreated mostly to the interior of the mountainous island until the 20th century. Their diet was quite poor, meals such a wild herb soup during the winter, and there were often famines. Then, in 1548, when Genoa governed the island, the Genoese governor decreed that each landowner and tenant had to plant at least a chestnut, a mulberry, an olive, and a fig tree each year. If not, there would be a fine for each tree not planted. Other similar decrees, such as that issued in 1619, which ordered that 10 chestnut trees had to be planted every year by each landowner and tenant, radically changed the landscape of whole regions of the island.
Chestnuts became the base diet of the people of Corsica, many of whom subsisted on chestnuts and wine alone. Rich in calories, the fruits were plucked and dried and placed on a wooden grate above a fire for one month. This fire, placed on a dry clay base smoked also the charcuterie and heated the house. After that, the chestnuts were ground to produce a smokey chestnut flour.
There are seemingly countless recipes using chestnuts in Corsica. A traditional wedding lunch may involve 22 different courses using chestnuts as the main ingredient. The chestnuts prevented famines and allowed the people to become more independent. French rule tried to cut down the immense chestnut forests in favour of cereal planting. However, the chestnut, and the wild pigs that eat them, still rule Corsica today.
A Mediterranean Island without Seafood
Seafood is not as beloved in Corsica as you would imagine. We expected something similar to the Sicilian experience. Living on the ocean is a recent phenomenon that only became more feasible after the second world war when malaria was eradicated.
The traditional dishes of Corsica are composed of mainly of chestnuts, charcuterie, cheese, wild boar, and veal. This meaty menu is surprising for an island in the middle of the Mediterranean.
The Romans however, took advantage not only of the natural resources of the island but the fish. When watching a little Hairy Bikers on the BBC (I know they’re kind of annoying but the food looks good. Eh kingy?) we saw this excerpt about an island made entirely of the shells of oysters shucked by the Romans. AMAZING! Watch it for yourself.
The Food of Corsica
Corsica’s signature dish is perhaps civet de sanglier, a hearty wild boar stew made with onions, carrots, fennel, red wine and (of course) chestnuts.
The basic products of Corsica are well respected such as the sheep and goat cheese, as well as the excellent jams, honey and olive oil. The food is robust and simple.
Chestnut flour is the staple rather than wheat flour. Today Corsican chestnut flour has achieved the mark of French quality AOC as well as a European AOP, under the name “Farine de châtaigne corse-Farina castagnina corsa“.
A Meaty Island
Meat in Corsica often comes from locally bred animals, and is very tasty, due to the numerous aromatic herbs of the maquis (Mediterranean shrubby landscape, similar to the garrigue of Provence) which the animals feed on. One of the novelties of visiting Corsica is often coming upon various semi-domestic animals on the road. Just like the people, the animals are free-spirited in Corsica!
Lamb is very popular, as is game, such as the emblematic wild boar of Corsica. Corsicans are masters of meaty stews such a civet de sanglier or veau (veal) aux olives. In fact, as we were in Corsica during the low tourist season, we ate these 2 meals interchangeably for a week straight as they were the only things on offer! The stew is served with pasta and is rich and delicious. Though after a week, really makes you appreciate vegetables!
Corsican charcuterie (cured meats) is considered one of the best worldwide due to the staunchly protected traditional production processes, and to the fact that Corsican pigs which live partly in the wild (as do seemingly all animals in Corsica), are crossbred with wild boar. They benefit from a diet consisting mainly of chestnuts. You’ll often see escaped little piglets on the side of the road guzzling delicious chestnuts from a tree temptingly just out of their pen.
Typical cold cuts are prisuttu (ham), panzetta (bacon) and lonzu. Figatellu, the most famous Corsican export, is a strong sausage made with pork liver. Figatellu is smoked for three or four days, then dried. It can be consumed roasted or grilled or used as a flavouring such as in bread.
So you think, I’ll definitely be trying some delicious charcuterie and fresh brocciu cheese on my visit to Corsica. Well, not necessarily. The best products are kept for local consumption and are often all gone by the end of the summer. Even the real brocciu is hard to find during the hot months. You either have to go in Spring, or befriend a Corsican. We were lucky that we tried the real thing in a bar in the middle of nowhere. I think the owner was impressed that we happily drank wine in the sunshine while fussing the 7 kittens!
Bread and Sweets
The traditional cakes and sweets of this island often combine 2 of the local ingredients, chestnut flour and brocciu cheese. Just about anything is stuffed with this simple fresh cheese, similar to Italian ricotta. You’ll find ravioli and cannelloni stuffed with brocciu on just about every menu.
Corsicans are also quite fond of doughnuts and biscuits. You’ll find freshly made canestri (donuts made with flour, butter, eggs and sugar) at any respectable bakery and biscuit factories surprisingly in the sleepiest of villages.
Wine and Liquor
Corsica produces its own wine with many unique grape varieties. This local tipple is often the only wine available, not that that’s a bad thing.
In restaurants, similar to Southern Italy, you’ll be served a complimentary shot of local liquor after your meal. This is often Myrte. It is made by macerating the berries of myrtle, a flowering plant found in the maquis, in alcohol. Everyone has their own recipe that varies widely from sweet to positively alcoholic.
Very popular are also Ratafia, liqueurs obtained macerating fruits into local pure alcohol and sugar. I was once made to swallow a grape that had been macerated in alcohol so long it was swollen to the size of a golf ball. My eyes nearly popped out of my head!
For the next month, I’ll be sharing food experiences during our stay in Corsica each week. Read the first experience about our first meal, (and feast!) on the island.