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D-54: Corsica's Cuisine

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

One of life’s pleasure is looking at menus and recipe books and guessing how people discovered all the interesting foods they describe. Food reveals human ingenuity as much as our technology does. Over the next few days, we are going to look into the cuisines of the islands and coasts we are going to visit, starting with Corsica today.

To briefly recapture its history: the island was populated since the Mesolithic, the final hunter gatherer period in Europe (roughly 15’000 – 5’000 BC), was early colonised by the Phoenicians, became a Roman province, when Rome fell it was invaded by Vandals and Goths (German tribes), served as base for Muslim raiders around the 10th century AD, was conquered by Pisa who lost it to Genoa in 1284 AD, became briefly an independent nation (1755 -1769) and was then conquered by France. During the seven hundred years as Roman province it was thoroughly Romanized but developed an independent cultural identity.

Corsica’s geography and geology

Corsica is a rough island with 120 mountains higher than 2’000 meters. Its western part is solid granite formed at the time of the supercontinent Pangea 250 million years ago, the eastern part is limestone from the Tethys Ocean floor. On the coast the climate is Mediterranean. In the mountains above 1'000m Alpine. In between it is similar to Northern Italy. Thus Corsica can grow a wide variety of food - where the rocks allow.

Due to the steep and rocky mountains, living in Corsica was never easy. The farmers in the mountains survived with little flocks of sheep and goats. The fishermen in their tiny villages perched between rocky shores could fetch a small but good catch. To lift the country out of its poverty, the Genovese authorities instructed Corsica’s farmers in the 16th century to plant every year a fig, olive, chestnut and mulberry tree. Their ultimate intention was to build a silk industry in Genoa and make Corsica its raw material supplier. But it never gained scale. The chestnut plantation succeeded however and the western part of Corsica is full of Chestnut trees. They love granite soil. As do my trees in Chantrou! For centuries, many Corsicans survived on chestnut flower only.

Corsica’s rough western coast with a few tiny fisherman villages perched between the rocks

Corsica’s cuisine reflects all the influences above. It is as rugged as the landscape. A poor man’s cuisine - sturdy and nutritious, reflecting at the margins the contributions from its colonisers. All staple ingredients are from the island’s interior. Chestnuts, peas, goat cheese, sheep and boar meat. Yes, the savage beasts that immigrated during the last ice age over the land-bridge linking Corsica to Italy. Sheep, goats, boars and peas provide the protein, chestnuts the carbs and goat cheese the fats.

As all mountain people, Corsicans love their stews and soups. It is easy to make and can be kept for days. Together with bread (baked once a month thus hard like a rock) stews make a good meal. The Corsican vegetable minestrone with ham stock is delicious (Zuppa Corsa) and their soup with pureed chestnuts delightful. Their most famous dish is a stew with boar meat (Civet de Sanglier). Some of the recipes are at the bottom of this blog.

Zuppa Corsa

Civet de Sanglier

Corsica also boasts wonderful cured hams made from free range pigs (some people say they are direct descendants of boars but I have never seen one thus can not confirm). These pigs are raised in the open and feed on chestnuts, acorns and fresh herbs. It is no wonder that the cured ham (Prisuttu) and their smoked pork liver sausage (Figatellu) are so very tasty.

Figatellu being smoked

No food description would be complete without mentioning Brocciu, the low-lactose cheese made from goat or sheep milk and whey. The cheese is immediately ready for consumption and never kept longer than a few weeks. It is comparable to Italian Ricotta cheese and often eaten with Corsican Rosé or white wine. Brocciu is also used in many dishes and desserts and goes extremely well with chestnuts.

Brocciu, the low-lactose Corsican version of Ricotta cheese

Any article on the Corsican cuisine has to mention olives, chickpeas and wine. Brought over by the Phoenicians and actively cultivated by the Romans these items became integral part of the island’s menus. The influence of 700 years of Pisan and Genovese rule is also easy to spot. Corsica has many pasta dishes and its swiss-chard / brocciu filled ravioli are a dream. The influence of the French cuisine is limited to the coast and finds its expression in many fish and seafood dishes like bouillabaisse.

Last but not least, even though the island was for almost hundred years used by Muslim corsairs to harass the coasts of Italy and France, there is no lasting Muslim influence on the Corsican cuisine. The corsairs came and went but stayed mainly on the coast. One wonders whether their presence was even noticed by the native Corsicans.

Tomorrow, we will talk about food in Sardinia

Below the link to a lovely article I found in the New York Times:

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May 20, 2020

Loving the blog Hugo. As usual fantastic reads but importantly provides an escape to the world that is waiting for us every morning when I am reading it! Fantastic ...

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