Ever since France won control of Corsica from Genoa, it has had a complicated relationship with this fiercely independent Mediterranean island, located some 150 miles from its southern shore.
Roughly the size of Puerto Rico, Corsica was briefly self-governing from 1755 to 1769, and still has an active separatist movement that is a fly in the bonnet of Gaul. This sporadic quarrel notwithstanding, the French particularly admire two things about Corsica: its spectacular scenery and its food. They call it "L'Ile de Beauté," and they insist that its small farms produce some of the finest foods and wines in Europe. The island is dotted with excellent restaurants, too.
Since many Corsican foods are strictly local, a visit to one of the island's shops provides a useful lesson in the delicious produce you'll find on menus.
One of the best is U Stazzu in Napoleon's hometown of Ajaccio. Here, charcutier Paul Marcaggi sells the superb Corsican sausages and hams he makes in the small village of Bocognano from the meat of black free-range Corsican pigs, which live on a diet of roots, chestnuts and acorns. The fifth generation of his family to raise pigs and practice the butcher's trade, Marcaggi is well-known in Corsica for his defense of traditionally produced charcuterie. "The only real Corsican charcuterie is produced from Corsican pork," he says, referring to the fact that many commercial producers use less expensive pork imported from mainland France.
The produce dangling from a wooden rail overhead in his shop proves his point; it has a succulence and gently gamey taste that simply doesn't compare to the industrial product. Marcaggi produces all of the classics of Corsican charcuterie, including lonzu (smoked pork fillet), coppa (made from pork ribs), prisuttu (aged, cured ham) and figatelli (a sausage made from pork heart and liver), along with other sausages made from the meat of wild boars. His shop also carries many of the other staples of the Corsican table, including brocciu, a ricotta-like fresh cheese made from ewe's or goat's milk; tome de brebis, a soft sheep's milk cheese; U Pecurino, a Corsican version of Pecorino; and niolo, an aged ewe's milk cheese. There is a fine selection of honey and preserves (Corsica is known for its citrus fruit, especially clementines and cedrats, a lemon-like fruit), an array of excellent jams and marmalades, some of the finest olive oil in the world, and chestnut flour.
U Stazzu, 1 rue Bonaparte, Ajaccio. Tel. (33) 4-95-51-10-80.
For many centuries, Corsicans lived on bread made from chestnut flour, and the island's chestnut groves were considered vital to its self-sufficiency. "As long as we have chestnuts, we'll always have bread," said the Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli, which may explain why chestnut cultivation was discouraged after the French took control, the official pretext being that living on a crop that required little effort led to "weak and immoral character." Recently, however, a new generation of Corsican chefs who prize the island's produce have started using the output of the few remaining chestnut flour mills, and you'll find chestnut flour crepes and pastries in some of the best restaurants.
They are also reinventing classics of the Corsican kitchen (which was strongly influenced by centuries of Italian occupation), such as ravioli or cannelloni stuffed with brocciu cheese; Corsican soup, made with red beans, onions and herbs and garnished with cheese; aziminu, Corsican-style bouillabaisse; priverunata, a sauté of goat meat with peppers; and fiadone, or flan, seasoned with orange-flower water.
Renowned since the days of the Roman Empire, Corsican wines have suffered from an uneven reputation, but are now also enjoying a renaissance. The island has eight A.O.C. wine regions (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, a French government designation based on precise geographical limits and a strict set of rules defining acceptable ingredients, prohibited additives, etc.). Among the better known are the powerful but elegant wines of the Patrimonio A.O.C., especially its red wines made from the Corsican Niellucciu grape, a cousin of the Italian Sangiovese cépage; as well as the gently sweet wines of the Cap Corse region of northern Corsica produced from Muscat grapes, and the white wines from the Calvi region, made with Vermentinu grapes (Vermentino in Italian), with the Alzipratu vineyard being among the best- known producers.
Though many of the best hotels in Corsica have excellent restaurants that cater to the formal gastronomic expectations of visitors from mainland France, most of the best tables are casual, rustic, friendly showcases of the island's remarkable produce. Just north of Bastia in the pretty seaside town of Erbalunga, the one-star Le Pirate is excellent, where the kitchen works almost exclusively with the finest local produce. Start with the delicious fish soup, then try the poached Corsican rock lobster on a bed of risotto.
Le Pirate, on the port in Erbalunga. Tel. (33) 4-95-33-24-20.
On the western coast of the Cap Corse, the restaurant at the Hotel de la Roya has a delightful seaside setting and specializes in excellent Corsican charcuterie, fresh vegetable salads and sophisticated preparations of the local catch of the day, including grilled John Dory and sea bream.
Hotel de la Roya, Plage de la Roya, Saint-Florent. Tel. (33) 4-95-37-00-40.
A few miles inland from Saint-Florent, Le Potager du Nebbio features the produce of a large organic vegetable garden adjacent to the restaurant, and serves dishes such as brocciu-filled pastry turnovers, excellent salads and grilled veal chops in a pleasantly rustic setting.
Le Potager du Nebbio, Route de San Griolo, Oletta. Tel. (33) 4-95-35-33-43.
In the southern Corsican hills outside of Sarténe, near the Domaine de Murtoli, the Santa Barbara is locally renowned for its charming setting and the excellent Corsican home cooking of chef Giséle Lovichi. Start with zucchini stuffed with brocciu, then try pigeon roasted with myrtle berries; rack of lamb with Corsican herbs; or sautéed shrimp before finishing up with a mille-feuille pastry filled with strawberries, currants and raspberries.
Santa Barbara, Quartier Santa Barbara, Sartne. Tel. (33) 4-95-77-09-06.
For simpler but equally delicious Corsican fare in the south, head for Tempi Fà in the charming little port town of Propriano. This boutique and restaurant specializes in Corsican wines and foods, making it an ideal stop for lunch during a day's touring. Start with a salad of local tomatoes, then choose veal cooked in a casserole with vegetables and chestnut-flour honey, or the catch of the day baked with olive and cedrat oil and garnished with coppa.
Tempi Fà, 7 avenue Napoléon, Propriano. Tel. (33) 4-95-76-06-52.