If to the victor go the spoils, then to the vanquished go the cuisine.
When the Roman philosopher Seneca was banished to live in exile two millennia ago, he was sent to Corsica, a mountainous island with rugged beaches surrounded by the clear Mediterranean Sea off the coasts of France and Italy. There are worse fates.
Just don’t call it France. Although the island is officially part of that country, Corsicans are fiercely independent, with graffiti of “This is not France” scrawled frequently in Corsu, the ancient Tuscan dialect that many residents still speak. Perhaps because of that spirit, most Corsican foods—singular and delicious beyond belief—rarely leave the island and are found almost exclusively in Corsica.
Although a traveler would expect menus bursting with fresh seafood from the Mediterranean (and the langoustine are indeed amazing), Corsica’s meats are known as some of the best in the world, particularly its charcuterie—lonzu (dry-cured loin), coppa (smoked filet), and prisuttu (dry-cured ham) are all protected by French law, after years of an intense campaign to require documentation of the purity of Corsica’s pigs’ bloodline.
The predilection for meat comes from a time when most Corsicans lived in the mountainous interior of the island, rather than on the deep blue shores, to protect themselves from constant ambush of conquerors. People killed wild game for food rather than risking a trip to the waters.
In those Corsican mountains, animals were, and still are, fattened by the fruit of chestnut, mulberry, and fig trees, giving them deeply complex flavor. When Genoa (Italy) controlled Corsica in the 16th century, it mandated that each resident plant these trees each year. Dense chestnut forests grew for game—particularly the Corsican pork—to feed on, making their meat robust, sweet, and particularly delicious. To this day, cars share the road with pigs and boar, sometimes stopping for a long time to let them cross. A good piece of ham is more important than getting where you need to be, so Corsicans respect that those animals need to happily wander.
As usual, politics is in the food. France and Italy (pieces of what is the modern nation) have both claimed the island over the past millennia or so. So a lot of people breezily declare that Corsican food is a combination of French and Italian. A tip: don’t ever say that to a Corsican.
It’s not exactly wrong, but it’s not exactly right either, because Corsican food is its own thing, shaped by history, geography, and a unique population. (For these reasons and more, it was named the top trip for 2015 by National Geographic Traveller last year.) Corsica has for generations happily sustained itself on its land’s meat, cheese, and crops with little reliance on the mainland. But that has never stopped the mainland from interfering.
The French tried to cut down the chestnut forests when they took over in 1768 to make way for the planting of wheat and other grains to make the island more, well, French. (Corsica’s most famous resident, Napoleon Bonaparte—born on the island just one year into French control—would soon take care of that.) But clearing the forests proved too daunting.
Today all over Corsica, most starches are still made with chestnut flour rather than wheat, from pastry crust to bread. Corsican cheesecake (falculella) is baked on chestnut leaves, creating a contrast of sweet/nutty, complex/simple, bright/dark flavors that is irresistible.
Falculella is special also because it’s made with brocciu, a goat or sheep milk cheese that is protected by the French AOC designation reserved for only the most unique French products like Bordeaux and Champagne wines. The AOC stamp declares that no matter what happens, France will legally protect this food because it is an irreplaceable part of French culture and history. Taste this cheese and you’ll be willing to fight for it too, particularly in November through May when it’s is available fresh and unpasteurized, like a rich and mild ricotta cheese. The rest of the year, brocciu is eaten aged—either way, Corsica’s terroir is in each bite.
Corsican terroir is probably best defined by the maquis, a mixture of fresh herbs, flowers, and grasses that covers the mountains and pops out of crannies in the sidewalks. Corsican air smells of it, even in the cities. (Of course, a Corsican “city” might be carved out of limestone.)
The particular blend depends on what is in the fields and changes seasonally, but will likely include some juniper, thyme, myrtle, mint, oregano, and basil—and several dozens of other fragrant items. The maquis permeates nearly everything in Corsica, from the meat of the pigs who eat it, to the seasoning on olives and meat, to the nectar that bees use for making honey. It’s why some say the charcuterie tastes so herbacous and complex. It tangles like a tiny jungle over most of Corsica’s ground.
Corsica produces the only honey with French AOC status, so everyone on the island coexists respectfully with the bees. (And the bees are everywhere—an Italian tradition is to put out an offering plate for the bees so they won’t flock to your food which, miraculously, usually works.) By moving the hives up the Corsican coast, beekeepers make a maquis spring honey and a maquis winter honey, as well as a chestnut honey, made only from the flower of the chestnut tree in the summer. The honeys vary in color and flavor significantly, ranging from sweet and light to deep amber, tasting tannic, and of molasses.
Corsica is its own thing—not part French and part Italian. If anything, it’s less food fusion, more food détente. Corsicans have had a lot of vanquishers come at them over the past couple of millennia and they are still ripping off chunks of chestnut bread, spooning up fresh brocciu, and sniffing maquis-scented air. Influenced by France and Italy and their decrees, but not conquered.