Wild France

Corsican food gets its unmistakable character from the sprawling scrub called the maquis.

Published July 17, 2004 2:30AM (EDT)

Corsica is, above all, wild -- Balzac's "back of beyond"; a seabound granite precipice where vendettas and feuds, not lawsuits, are the rule; an island where free-range animals live side by side with free-range people -- who would rather hunt and gather than farm and fish. (Why grow wheat when chestnuts fall from trees?) Although Corsica has been under French control since 1768, its fiercely independent inhabitants have always kept Paris at arm's length. Never fully integrated into mainland life -- whether Pisan, Genoese, or French -- Corsica is where your spouse goes when you've really blown it: "Je vais en Corse!" ("I'm going to Corsica!") It's all France's wilderness refuge.

From the village of Murato, high in the hills above the Corsican port city of Bastia, I could just make out the French mainland to the northwest, hovering cloudlike in the distance. "You're in luck," said Henri Thiers, an owner of the nearby Ferme Campo di Monte. "You can see the Continent from here only two or three days a year." Gale-force winds had made for a memorable overnight ferry crossing from Genoa, but my discomfort was a small price to pay for a morning so clear that Provence seemed little more than a few valleys away. As I turned slowly to the east, the Mediterranean and France faded from view, replaced by the Tyrrhenian Sea, the island of Elba, and the coast of Italy.

Blanketing the hillside below us was the famed maquis corse, or Corsican scrub -- a dense, fragrant underbrush of oak, juniper, thorn, heather, and wild herbs and flowers that covers much of the island. Its bittersweet lemon-pepper aroma, described as "akin to incense" by English anthropologist Dorothy Carrington in her award-winning Granite Island (Longmans, 1971), has earned Corsica the sobriquet The Perfumed Isle. Taking a deep breath of the scrub, I recalled that Napoleon Bonaparte, the island's most famous native son, was apparently so enamored of this musky smell that he dreamed of it during his final days on Elba.

Thick almost to the point of being impenetrable, the maquis -- which can reach as high as 20 feet -- was for centuries a refuge for Corsican outlaws. Today the most dangerous inhabitants you're likely to find are wild boar. "These towering mountains," Thiers continued, motioning around us, "intercept clouds and produce the abundant rain-fall that makes the maquis so rich and the soil so fertile."

High mountains, abundant rainfall, dense vegetation: Nearly all of the secrets of the island's food had just been revealed to me. The Corsican specialties that I had been dreaming of since my last visit -- onctueux stews and soups, wonderful smoked and roasted meats, powerful cheeses -- get their unmistakable character from the maquis. The scrub also provides ideal grazing for game as well as for free-range pigs, cows, sheep, and goats -- all of which forage at their leisure, resulting in especially aromatic and flavorful meats and milks. And Corsica's industrious cooks utilize this bounty to the fullest.

Murato is justly famous for its extraordinary 12th century polychrome church, San-Michele de Murato, but there is another, almost equally compelling reason to visit the town: the 15-year-old restaurant Ferme Campo di Monte. Corsicans seldom agree about anything, but they all seem to admire the Campo di Monte and its owners, Thiers and Pauline and Josiane Juillard.

When I arrived at the restaurant, the sisters were busy in the kitchen preparing the night's dinner: On the stove were goat stew, storzapreti -- gratinéed cheese dumplings with mint and egg -- and soupe corse. The Juillards' version of this hearty mountain soup, also called soupe montagne or soupe paysanne, includes a meaty ham bone -- schincu in Corsican, an archaic mix of Latin and Italian -- olive oil, garlic, potatoes, noodles, and a garden's worth of vegetables and herbs. "We took it off the menu once," Pauline confided, "but then we had an uprising. Our regular patrons protested. It's certainly the most universal Corsican dish." One spoonful was enough to make me understand why.

Also in the works was a huge fiadone, a cheesecake made with Corsica's ricottalike brocciu (pronounced "brooch," with a delay on the ch). I started to bombard the Juillards with questions about Corsica's numerous cheeses, but they were focused on the task at hand and politely sent me down the road to the small village of Vallecalle to see their brocciu supplier, Fromagerie Casanova. A brisk walk later, I arrived at a simple, sterile-looking facility. Until a few years ago, cheesemakers often worked out of their shepherd's bergerie, usually a small stone or wooden hut. New French laws now prohibit this. In a white-tiled room, fromagerie owner Pierre-Philippe Casanova and shepherd Paul Pruneta were stirring (with obvious glee) the pale, creamy contents of a metal pot set over a low flame. When I asked Casanova, a rugged, self-assured mountain dweller, about the cheese he was making, he quickly replied: "It's not cheese, it's brocciu!" which he went on to describe as "light, fresh, yet ... anything but bland, like a ricotta with the taste of the maquis." Brocciu plays a part in many Corsican dishes, including storzapreti, omelettes, and beignets, and is commonly eaten at breakfast seasoned with salt and pepper or topped with jam.

The island's cheese industry is comprised mainly of small producers, such as Casanova, who specialize in a single type of cheese. However, reflective of Corsica's independent, often rebellious nature, cheeses here -- unlike those in the rest of France -- do not usually have specific names. When dining out in restaurants or people's homes, the choice is likely to be simply brebis, from sheep, or chevre, from goats. Corsican cheeses are generally salty with an assertive taste and smell. Two of my favorites are the soft and creamy bastelicacciu (a brebis), from the Ajaccio region, and the sticky, tangy niolu (which may be either sheep's or goat's milk), from the village of Casamaccioli. After brocciu, the most famous, or perhaps infamous, Corsican cheese might well be a chevre called casgiu merzu, which comes complete with asticots, or small white worms. It is hard to find these days and is never served in restaurants, but if you're adventurous, the cheese is worth seeking out for its sharp taste and crumbly texture -- and for the obvious thrill factor.

The highland character of Corsican cooking is a direct result of the island's turbulent history. Strategically located at the intersection of some of the Mediterranean's richest trading routes, Corsica has been a highly coveted slab of rock since ancient times. The long list of invaders and occupiers includes Phocaeans, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Catalonians, Ostrogoths, Saracens, Pisans, and Genoese. Because the sea only seemed to bring trouble, the natives naturally retreated inland (and upland). At the bustling market in Ajaccio, one can find impeccably fresh sea bream, red mullet, sea bass, and scorpion fish. But according to the philosophical Gisele Lovichi, an expert on Corsican cuisine who runs a culinary academy at her Auberge Santa Barbara near Sartëne, Corsica has never had more than a small fishing fleet working its coasts, and fresh fish rarely reaches the interior. Even the fishermen concede that seafood is not a definitive island ingredient.

Chestnuts are another story. Used for everything from flan to beer, they have been a staple on the island since the Middle Ages. With Corsica's steep terrain unfavorable to the cultivation of wheat, the chestnut has filled the void and shown remarkable versatility in the process. Dubbed l'arbre pain, which literally means "bread tree," the chestnut tree is valued not only for its fruit but also for its wood, which is used to build everything from traditional Corsican houses to coffins.

The Corsican chestnut has no greater fan than Jean-Paul Vincensini. He and his son Laurent hail from San-Lurenzu in the spectacular Castagniccia (chestnut forest) region, and are among the island's leading producers of farina castagnina, or chestnut flour. Farina castagnina is made by drying whole chestnuts, gathered in the fall, over a chestnut-wood fire for about three weeks, until they are sapped of nearly all their water. After the shells and skins are removed, the fruit is slowly baked for about a day until it partly caramelizes. Finally, it is milled into flour. Darker and sweeter than wheat flour, chestnut flour is used in cakes, beignets, crepes, cookies, and more. It is also the basis of pulenda, a dense, earthy substance -- not to be confused with cornmeal polenta -- that traditionally accompanies goat stew, roast lamb, and other hearty dishes. Cooking pulenda is a little like mixing cement: Chestnut flour is sprinkled into boiling salted water and stirred until it is nearly solid (needless to say, weak arms need not apply). It is then placed on a flour-covered cloth, patted down, and sliced with string or thread.

In the town of Piedicroce, deep in the heart of chestnut country, is Le Refuge, the Raffalli family's hotel and restaurant, renowned for its hospitality and traditional fare. Madame Marie-Dominique does all the cooking  breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- while her son, Jean-Jean, specializes in charcuterie. During an impromptu visit, Jean-Jean walked me through his operation with much pride and patience, explaining what he feeds his free-range pigs (corn and barley with chestnut roots) to supplement their natural forage, how many pigs he slaughtered last November (190), and how he prepares his meats (smoking them over a chestnut-wood fire is one technique).

Down in the ripening cellars, hundreds of hams and sausages hung from wooden beams in the ceilings, and the air was heavy with the smell of must and smoke. "These walls," said Jean-Jean, thumping one with evident pride, "are some six feet thick, so they retain the cold all year round. The caves are 14 to 15 degrees centigrade [57 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit] -- the temperature is perfect if you see mold forming. Artificial refrigeration would sacrifice 30 percent of the taste."

Corsica's prisuttu, or smoked ham, is on a par with Italy's prosciutto di Parma and Spain's jamun serrano. Also noteworthy are coppa (salted and peppered pork loin) and lonzu (preserved pork loin served in paper-thin slices). But I have a particular weakness for ficatelli -- small sausages made of finely chopped pigs' livers that have been marinated in wine, garlic, and peppercorns, then stuffed into casings and smoked. These dark, aromatic beauties are served raw, sautéed, or grilled.

My most memorable ficatelli encounter occurred in the mountain village of Vivario at Madame Cirelli's cozy and welcoming Cafe Restaurant des Amis. I stopped by one cold, rainy afternoon after a taxing drive over the winding Vizzavona pass from Ajaccio. The small bar was empty, but a roaring fire beckoned. Suddenly Madame Cirelli appeared, and before I knew it she had taken my coat, thrown some ficatelli over the coals, and put a steaming bowl of broad-bean soup in front of me. Next came wild boar stew, a seasonal specialty of the house, followed by that wonderful ficatelli and homemade bread. I only managed a few bites of her civet de lapin -- rabbit cooked with thyme, laurel, garlic, and the animal's own chopped liver, heart, and brainbefore begging for mercy. Ever the mind reader, Madame Cirelli served me a smooth yet gutsy red wine from an Aléria cooperative -- a perfect match for food with this much bold taste.

Corsican wines -- long stereotyped by the Tuscan proverb "A glass of Corsican wine and I'll climb the Stromboli," which is an active volcano -- have improved greatly in the last twenty years or so, thanks to stricter standards and controls. Nowadays only wines whose origins and qualities are tested regularly earn the label Vin de Corse, and the island boasts nine appellations contrulées and two cru designations. "When Corsica was an extremely poor country, winemakers produced rough wines with a high alcohol content," vintner Christian Imbert, president of a Corsican wine syndicate, told me. "Now Corsican wines are smoother." A Burgundian native, Imbert started his winery, Domaine de Torraccia -- known for its fragrant rosés -- in Lecci, near Porto-Vecchio, more than thirty years ago, shortly after moving to the island from Chad in Africa. He now produces a total of 220,000 bottles of rosé, red, and white wines a year.

Corsica's granite soil supports about twenty-seven thousand acres of vineyards today. The principal grape varieties are the sciacarellu, yielding peppery, aromatic reds and rosés; nielluciu, a cousin of Italy's sangiovese, for dense and floral reds; and vermentinu (often labeled vermentino), also called malvasia or (in France) rolle, for dry whites. The inevitable cabernet and chardonnay have also started to appear. "The main thing to remember about Corsican wines," said Imbert, "is that because Corsica has virtually no industry, the environment has gone nearly untouched. As a result, Corsica's winemakers have great respect for 'l'humeur de la nature' -- nature's will."

Surely it was that will of nature that drew me back to the Campo di Monte for my final meal on the island before heading home. In one of the small stone-and-wood dining rooms, I sipped a glass of Cap Corse, a portlike apéritif, and chewed on some black olives specked with rosemary while trying to guess the night's menu. Pauline and Josiane were, of course, at their stoves, their creations nearing perfection and the kitchen choreography quickening as the dinner hour approached. Soon I was surrounded by an orgy of food: a lamb stew with white beans, storzapreti, tomates farcies, sugared beignets with eau-de-vie, and, though there was little room for it, a helping of fresh brocciu. Throughout the meal, the sisters checked on my progress, smiling whenever I'd left an empty plate. Meanwhile, Thiers regaled me with fascinating tales of restaurant life. Many laughs and hours later, it was time for me to leave.

Outside, the wind continued to blow. The stars were clear and close, the moon full, and the sap high in the chestnut trees as I started down the dirt track through the magical maquis that had helped provide -- and season -- the feast that would have to tide me over until my next visit to this "back of beyond."

By George Semler

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