What to eat on the island of Corsica, from sea urchins to maquis herbs
The French island makes good use of its unique location when it comes to gastronomy — whether it’s through its Italian history; rich, fertile terroir; or fine seafood from its rich Mediterranean waters.
“The sea and the mountains. Rivers and hills and the ‘maquis’. In Corsica, we have all these across a small island and this means we have some of the best produce in the world — it’s just that we didn’t recognise it before,” says Nicolas Stromboni.
The author and wine merchant is giving me a crash course in the gastronomy of the Mediterranean island that lies southeast of France and just north of Sardinia. “You can have sea urchins, charcuterie, veal and wild boar all on the same table, none of it having come from very far away,” he says.
His book, Du Pain, Du Vins, Des Oursins (‘bread, wine, sea urchins’, but less lyrically titled Corsica: The Recipes in English) is an ode to the foods of this small, sparsely populated, wild land.
“I don’t think there’s another area in the world with such small topography, but with such diverse product,” says Nicolas. “Corsica is the biggest gastronomical producer in France in terms of ‘family’ of produce — we have 34 ‘families’, such as cured meat, cheese and wine. It’s like France in microcosm.”
The maquis, or shrubland, that Nicolas talks about blankets almost half the island and is covered in the wild herbs and aromatic flowers that flavour much of the local cooking and give Corsica the nickname ‘the scented isle’. Thyme, oregano, myrtle and nepeta, an indigenous mint, as well as immortelle, a deeply fragrant curry plant, are among the shrubs that grow here. But when I first meet Nicolas, it’s the scent of pork that fills the air. He’s deftly charring pungent cuts of meat on the barbecue. “Here we have a little black pig that’s incredibly tasty because it eats just three things — whey, hops and chestnuts,” he says.
The feast Nicolas is cooking marks the opening of the annual Art’è Gustu food festival, held in a school playground in the town of Aléria. It’s curated and hosted by Valérie Hermé, wife of the high priest of macarons, Pierre, and attracts culinary pilgrims and chefs from the French mainland and beyond.
“I met Valerie six years ago at this festival and fell in love — both with her and this island, her home,” Pierre tells me.
“The maquis herbs are very special: for me, it’s immortelle and nepeta, so very distinctive, the smell of Corsica. The pork here is astonishingly good, too; the meat and the fat are so densely flavoured. And the Corsicans make the best candied fruits in the world. This is a land of produce.”
As I wander from stall to stall, I begin to understand what Nicolas and Pierre mean when they say they adore Corsican produce. I taste brocciu (a creamy whey cheese that’s eaten soon after it’s made), canistrelli (crunchy biscuits), herb pies, maquis-scented honey, hazelnuts and wines. There are displays of hand-forged knives, which I come to learn are deeply ingrained in Corsican culture. A pastoral land, knives have long been used here to cut crops, kill animals and eat with — but they were also used to ward off invaders such as the nearby Genoese.
Félix Torre carves slices of his fat-marbled coppa, a single sliver of it persuading me why it’s so highly rated by Pierre. Charcuterie is, perhaps, the island’s primary product. It’s hung to age in the eaves of houses and shops, and on the ceilings of restaurants, its pungency wafting all around. The cuts’ Italian-inflected names — coppa, lonzu, prisuttu, salsiccia, vuleta — speak of Corsica’s history of Italian rule before France, but this method of preservation also tells a story of frugality and the seasons, where an animal was slaughtered in winter, but cured so it might be savoured year-round.
High in the Alta Rocca mountains, where stark granite peaks are covered with chestnut, oak and pine trees — chef Jean-Baptiste de Rocca Serra leads me into the curing room at A Pignata, a small inn and restaurant that’s been run by his family for generations, and which exalts local produce.
“We keep the old, simple ways alive here. We have 100 pigs on the mountain and from November to March we make charcuterie to serve in the restaurant. It’s very special; the animals are free-range and eat chestnuts and acorns, but it’s also about the altitude and climate — it all adds to the flavour.”
Dinner here at A Pignata begins with a platter of these meats, deep in flavour but sweet too, followed by pork and vegetables grown on the family farm further down the hill. “My cuisine is the cuisine of my grandmother,” says Jean-Baptiste. “I cook with a lot of love. It’s slow cooking.”
In the nearby town of Zonza, I meet chef Jacques Sabit at Auberge du Sanglier, a rustic restaurant that specialises in sanglier (wild boar). “We don’t make fish here because we’re in the mountains,” he laughs, presenting me with a rich boar stew, dotted with chestnuts and accompanied by handmade pasta.
But on this island, the sea isn’t far away. Its siren call leads me down from the peaks, through the salt plains of Porto-Vecchio and to the kitchen of chef Fabio Bragagnolo, at his two Michelin-star restaurant in the newly refurbished Casadelmar Hotel. He takes sea bream and turns it into cannelloni, stuffing it with spider crab and dotting it with caviar; he bakes sea bass in a salt and pastry case, serving it with razorfish; and celebrates his Italian roots and Corsica’s proximity to his homeland with a cacio e pepe-style taglioni with tiger prawns. “The seafood here is very special and I want to highlight that,” he says.
Yet it’s standing in the vineyards of Domaine de Torraccia with winemaker Marc Imbert — looking out on a view that takes in the sea and the mountains — that I truly come to understand more about Corsicans’ relationship with their land.
“Our winemaking and gastronomy were decimated by the two world wars. We lost a generation of men along with the traditions of viniculture and produce, and it’s only over the last couple of decades that we’ve begun to reclaim that,” he explains. “Corsica’s topography means we have excellent conditions for winemaking. We have a fruity nature, but the terroir means we have more character and structure in our wine. Everything around you — the maquis, the mountains, the sea — adds to the wine.”
At Les Aromatiques de l’Ile de Beauté, a wild garden near Porto-Vecchio, I meet horticulturist Stéphane Rogliano, who cultivates the plants of the maquis for restaurants across the island. He picks grey fronds of immortelle, and tells me to bruise them with my fingers and inhale the curry-like scent that bursts out. I breathe in varieties of mint, oregano, marjolaine and fennel, everything intensely fragrant.
“I’ve reclaimed the land for the plants,” explains Stéphane. “I leave them to grow like they would in the wild: slowly, with no fertiliser, which means they have more character, smell and flavour.”
Corsica’s most famous son, Napoleon, was said to crave the scent of the maquis and indeed, the aroma lingers long in the memory. When I return home, I plant a window box with immortelle, but it’s not the same. I’ll just have to return
Three restaurants to visit
1. Restaurant Casadelmar
Chef Fabio Bragagnolo mixes local produce with that of France and Italy in this chic two Michelin-starred hotel restaurant. On the menu is locally caught red tuna baked in clay and served with buffalo stracciatella and smoked mullet roe; as well as ravioli of minced quail, ricotta cheese, wild nettles and morels served with a smoked consommé. Among the meat dishes are Corsican veal and duck. The four-course ‘discovery’ menu is around £152.50 per person.
2. A Pignata
This family-run auberge in the mountains of the Alta Rocca uses rustic Corsican techniques and produce grown on a nearby farm. Charcuterie, made from small blackfoot pigs reared on acorns and chestnuts, is a highlight, along with a peasant soup of ham bones, vegetables and pasta. Main courses are simple, often lamb or pork accompanied by rich cannelloni made with creamy brocciu cheese. The dining room has a fire for cold nights and a terrace in the summer. A four-course dinner with cheese is around £47.50 per person.
3. La Table de Cala Rossa
Chef Pascal Cayeux turns to the Mediterranean and neighbouring Italy to bring a light touch to Corsica’s rich larder. Dishes on the set ‘epicurean’ menu include local langoustine served with figs grown in the garden, almonds and a crustacean consomme; and matcha tea ravioli with brocciu cheese and pigeon roasted in the oven. The four-course epicurean menu, including bread and an amuse-bouche, is around £108 per person.
Five foods to try
Brocciu: a creamy, fresh cheese that’s eaten on its own, made into cannelloni, baked in pies and turned into desserts.
Figatellu: the most emblematic of the various cured sausages produced in Corsica, made from pork meat and liver.
Cap Corse Mattei: A bittersweet aperitif made from Moscato and Vermentino grape juice, and flavoured with maquis herbs and other exotic plants.
Wine: Three grape varieties, Vermentinu, Nielluccio and Sciacarello, are cultivated in the vineyards between mountain and sea and produce glorious wines.
Herbs: The maquis yields wild herbs that scent the air and kitchens throughout the island. Immortelle and nepeta are two of the most emblematic.
Air Corsica flies from Stansted to Bastia, Ajaccio, Calvi and Figari.
Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)