“The taste of this meat is the taste of Corsica,” says Paul Marcaggi, offering a succulent slice of garnet-colored sausage at the end of a long knife in his Ajaccio shop. “Eating my charcuterie is a way of connecting with nature.” Spend a week on this Mediterranean island, and you’ll discover that it’s been decades since Corsica was such a delicious destination, and that you just can’t craft a better itinerary than one based on tracking down its very best produce.
For the first time in a generation, the sounds of spring—bees, birds, streams rushing with snowmelt, wind grooming the live oak forests—are accompanied by the intermittent noise of tractors. To local ears, this is the sweet song of a newly industrious and ambitious Corsica. Young people are staying home or returning from mainland France, investing heavily in new agricultural projects—often using state-of-the-art techniques—and are turning out fabulous wine, cheese, honey and a host of other gourmet products.
Anne Amalric, who makes what may be the best olive oil in the world at the Domaine de Marquiliani, is an agricultural chemist who left her job on the French mainland several years ago. “The beauty and natural setting of Corsica offer a spectacular quality of life,” she says. “Many young Corsicans who moved to big French cities now want to come home. We love our island, and with the Internet and other technologies, we can enjoy a healthy and incredibly beautiful environment without being cut off from the rest of the world.” Amalric is representative of a trend that is dramatically changing life on the island—and may very well be the key to its future.
On the eve of World War II, this leaf-shaped island (it is roughly the size of Puerto Rico with a population of about 260,000) was the world’s second-largest producer of olive oil. It was also the third-largest producer of French wines and exported tons of cheese, fruit, charcuterie, honey and vegetables to the French mainland and Italy. Then, for a variety of reasons, this lively trade dried up. One of the most storied larders in Europe—originally a Roman granary, Corsica fed Genoa, Pisa and Marseille for centuries—nearly went bare.
Domaine Saparale’s story is typical. In 1900, more than a hundred people lived and worked on this magnificent property, located on the outskirts of Sartène in southern Corsica. A small bronze bell set into the stone wall next to the abandoned gendarmerie—the village once also had a school, a church and a post office—used to ring throughout the day to measure the labor of those who farmed the surrounding vineyards, orchards and fields. Fifty years later, the cluster of handsome farm buildings and stone cottages stood empty. War, unionization, rural exodus and foreign competition had forced villagers to seek their livelihoods elsewhere.
Today, however, Philippe Farinelli proudly shows a visitor around the land that has been in his family for generations. A hundred acres of meticulously replanted vineyards now produce the red, rosé and white Casteddu wines that are considered to be among Corsica’s best. One barn—tidy, well lit and impeccably restored—is filled with wine aging in new oak barrels; another houses shiny stainless-steel vats. Not far away, though, a delapidated stone structure stands as a reminder of bleaker times: Laced with cobwebs, it is occupied by two rows of empty wooden wine kegs.
“I love this country,” declares 32-year-old Farinelli. “The reason I went to Montpellier [where he earned a master’s degree in oenology] was to come home and do this. Otherwise, I could never have stayed away for so long.” The young winemaker works exclusively with classic Corsican grapes—nielluccio, vermentino, sciacarello. “I make strong, distinctive wines, wines with real local character. The reds have a lot of fruit, especially gooseberries and currants, and the whites are fat and round.”
Striding along in tall rubber boots, he leads the way down a muddy rutted road to a neighboring farm owned by Paul Quilichini. He and his daughter, just out of law school in Paris and now helping with the family business, nod in agreement as Farinelli talks about Corsica’s future. “We can’t live on tourism alone,” he says. “The environment is too fragile to support much more development. Besides, the miracle of this island, its real wealth, is how astonishingly well preserved it is compared with other places in the Mediterranean.” The solution, they believe, is agriturismo. “It’s an Italian concept that approaches agriculture and tourism as complementary activities,” explains Farinelli. “If we do that, we can protect this place.”
Last year, Quilichini, who also runs a construction company, made a huge investment that literally will not bear fruit for at least three years. His neat rows of thigh-high olive trees stand in irrigated fields—a startling innovation in island olive culture—and he has installed a sleek Italian stainless-steel press. “I’ve been swimming in olive oil since I was born,” he says. “My mother worked on a farm, and my father was a lawyer who missed the land so much that he came home and started making oil. So I have it in my blood. I planted these trees as my contribution to the future of the island, and because I want to create a business that will enable my children to live here if they choose.”
In the distance, what initially looked like white puffs matted on a steep green slope suddenly change configuration, revealing themselves to be sheep. “We want to preserve our countryside,” he continues. “But to do that, people have to be able to make a living here. Agriculture has to be a viable business.” Corsica is fortunate in that its traditional products are very high quality and very distinctive—exactly what Europeans want as they grow older and more affluent.
What makes them special is terroir, the unique character of a product that is determined by the soil, climate and other factors specific to a given geographical location. “It’s our job to educate consumers, to explain what makes our products different,” says Quilichini. “Most Corsican olive oil, for example, is made from Ghermana, Sabina and Zinzala olives.” What’s more, it has earned the coveted A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) label, which means that production methods and growing areas are strictly regulated—and that Corsican olive oil can command higher prices.
Perched on a steep hillside, Sartène has a slightly austere appearance when seen from afar; up close, however, it is a charming mix of shady plane trees, gurgling fountains and exuberant baroque architecture. According to Prosper Mérimée, it is “the most Corsican of Corsican towns.” His novel Colomba, published in 1840, codified much of the folklore—including an exaggerated Corsican propensity for vendettas—that remains the prism through which the mainland French view the island.
It’s a rather limited vision. “Corsicans typically want to become great soldiers, famous lawyers, government ministers…or the world’s best croupiers,” Quilichini had laughingly explained. “Still, our culture remains very local. The north has traditionally been more open, the south more conservative. And each city has its own personality. Sartène, for example, is a deeply religious town.” Carrying the cross during catenacciu—the Holy Week procession that is the most famous religious rite in Corsica—is such an honor here that there’s a waiting list of many years.
Sitting on a café terrace at the end of a first day in Corsica, you have a distinct sense of being somewhere different. This is certainly neither France nor Italy; these are strong, passionate, proud, somewhat reserved but instinctively hospitable people. When Corsicans talk to you, they touch you, an ancient, endearing Mediterranean way of acknowledging you, respecting you and asking that you do the same. “Napoleon always said that islanders have something unique about them due to their isolation,” wrote Count Emmanuel de Las Cases, biographer of the Corsican general who became emperor of France. “Inhabitants of mountainous regions have a strength of character and a depth of soul that’s theirs alone.”
The waiter serves Orezza, a sparkling mineral water from a spring in the rugged north of the island. “This water was known to the ancients,” he says as he pours. “It’s good for anemia and liver and kidney problems.” Like Saint Georges, another Corsican water sold in a sleek Philippe Starck-designed bottle, Orezza is handsomely packaged, further evidence that this island is awakening to its new potential.
The newspaper folded on the next table, however, underscores the challenges it still faces. “Demonstrations in Bastia,” the headline reads. Jean-Guy Talamoni, a nationalist politician, has returned to the island after being held by French police on charges of extortion related to terrorist activities. As many as 3,500 of Talamoni’s supporters had turned out to protest the police action and to cheer his return.
France ostensibly gained control of the island in 1768, when then-ruling Genoa acceded to the Treaty of Versailles and used the island to pay off a debt to the French crown. What the deal woefully ignored was that Corsica, under General Pascal Paoli, had just tasted nearly 13 years of relative independence. It even had its own capital and national assembly in Corte, a mountain stronghold in the center of the island. And so the stage was set for a strife that seems as eternal as the spectacular views of the Gulf of Valinco from the terraced streets of Sartène.
It doesn’t take even 24 hours in Corsica to understand that it’s neither appropriate nor prudent to offer an opinion on the island’s political status. One might wonder, for example, if the island, which has received hundreds of millions of euros in regional aid from Brussels in recent years, might not be better advised to peacefully frame its identity in the emerging Europe of culturally distinct and prosperous regions such as Flanders, Catalonia and Scotland.
But perhaps that would overlook a passionate sense of aggrievedness, ignore the anger and wounds inflicted by centuries of occupation. “Between the Genoans, the Pisans, the English, the French, the Germans and others, we’ve been invaded 22 times,” an indignant charcutier declared, somehow slipping this information into an explanation of how he produces such spectacular sausage and ham. To provoke French ears, he added, “If a referendum were held today, I think Corsicans might prefer to be part of the United States rather than France.” Suffice it to say that conversation is usually steered elsewhere, politics being too delicate an issue to discuss calmly with foreigners.
The smell in U Stazzu is deliciously primal, the rich odors of meat, smoke and cheese creating a mouth-watering fugue in Paul Marcaggi’s shop in Ajaccio, the island’s Neapolitan-looking capital city. Duck as you enter or you may bump into the superb assortment of Corsican charcuterie dangling from wooden rails overhead. A steady stream of customers from not only Corsica but also mainland France, Italy and other countries come here for the sublime lonzu (smoked pork filet), coppa (made from pork ribs), prisuttu (aged, cured ham) and figatelli (a sausage made from pork heart and liver). Much of it is made by Marcaggi and his family, who use only Corsican black pigs that forage for roots, chestnuts and acorns.
As hospitable as Marcaggi is in Ajaccio, he, like most Corsicans, becomes a very different man in the countryside. There, he is in his element. Walking up a rocky trail outside of Bocognano, he whistles for his pigs, which are happily eating tender green shoots on steep slopes or dozing in the shade. “Tradition is everything. I am the fifth generation of my family to raise pigs and make charcuterie. I cannot imagine being this happy in any other life,” he says, as a pig nuzzles up against his thigh. “Corsican pigs are like goats,” he points out. “They have evolved to adapt to life in the mountains.”
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Marcaggi is some sort of utopian back-to-nature type. He has plans to open new shops in Ajaccio and Paris and is renovating several vacation rentals that he owns in the spectacular countryside around Bocognano. And this savvy businessman is nothing if not passionate about protecting the quality of Corsican charcuterie. Only 5 percent of it is actually made in Corsica from Corsican pigs, he laments; the rest is produced industrially in Corsica from imported meat or even on the mainland, where the only thing Corsican about it is the pirated image of the Moor with a bandanna.
Marcaggi recently took part in a study group working to establish A.O.C. specifications for Corsican charcuterie but then withdrew because he felt their standards were too lax. So he continues to require his own suppliers to sign a contract detailing the processes and ingredients they use to produce not only the meat but also the cheese, honey, wine, chestnut flour and any of the other Corsican products he sells at U Stazzu.
Leaving Marcaggi and his pigs in Bocognano, it’s about an hour and a half to Corte and the magnificent, almost Alpine Restonica Gorges, known for producing some of the best brocciu on the island. Pronounced “bruch,” this curdy sheep or goat’s milk cheese is similar to ricotta but has a more delicate flavor. After an excellent meal of thick Corsican soup, roasted baby lamb and a baked brocciu tart, a night dissolves too quickly, the potent but lulling sound of the rapids of the Restonica river gently scouring away the stress and exhilaration of another day’s driving on the island’s narrow, sinuous roads.
At 7:30 A.M., Pierre Biancardini is finishing up the morning’s milking of his 200 goats in a fusty stone barn 10 minutes up the road from Corte. After he finishes the last animal, he opens the barn door and in seconds, the steep hillside is covered with goats eagerly munching the grass and herbs that alternating days of rain and sunshine have coaxed out of the rocky soil. Bearded and burly, Biancardini, 44, has the laconic mien of a real shepherd, which is exactly what he is.
In fact, he is among the last several hundred Corsicans who still practice the transhumance of their ancestors: From late June to mid-September, he lives in a bergerie, or stone cottage, high in the mountains where his goats spend the summer grazing. During these months, he makes salted brocciu. “Brocciu is said to have been invented by Solomon, but it’s Corsican soul food,” says Biancardini, who has been making cheese with his wife for two decades. “For centuries, we survived on brocciu, charcuterie and bread made from chestnut flour. It’s only recently that Corsicans started eating fish. We are really mountain people, you know.”
Chestnuts, he explains, have been grown on the island since the 15th century. “As long as we have chestnuts, we’ll always have bread,” said Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli, attesting to the importance this highly nutritious nut once had in the Corsican diet. Cultivation has waned over the years, discouraged in part by French government officials who saw it as promoting “weak and immoral character,” given that chestnut trees require little care compared with other crops. Today, only a few small mills survive, but chestnut flour has suddenly become chic—and cher—as the island rediscovers its gastronomic traditions.
Before leaving Corte, it’s worth visiting the 15th-century citadel that now houses the excellent Musée de la Corse. With its focus on anthropology, it presents the island’s history through themed exhibits, beginning with megalithic and Roman monuments and continuing through the various crafts—such as basketweaving using chestnut splints—that were once an integral part of island life.
By the end of the visit, several dates stand out as turning points in recent Corsican history: In 1894, a railroad line was built between Bastia and Ajaccio; much more than mere transportation, this route united the people of the north and south, who had historically been separated by a high mountain range. Another red-letter date was 1974, when a number of Corsicans revolted against the French, who had been giving subsidies and land to French pieds noirs since the end of the Algerian war in 1962. These violent battles with the police are considered the beginning of modern Corsican nationalism. On a more peaceful note, the University of Corsica opened its doors in Corte in 1981; finally, it was possible for young people to get a higher education without moving to the mainland—where they often ended up staying. The university is credited not only with turning out a new generation of local entrepreneurs but with forging a more unified Corsican identity.
The vast blue sea shimmers in the distance, but in Pietroso, the air is scented with the earthy smells of flowering thyme, rosemary, myrtle and arbutus, some of the many plants that compose Corsica’s famous maquis. Satiated bees occasionally break away, returning to silver-painted hives on a ledge below, where beekeeper Paul Tristani is busy with daily upkeep. Tristani sells four different types of honey—Spring Maquis, Clementine (gourmets consider Corsican clementines, which grow in the plains around Aléria, to be among the Mediterranean’s best), Chestnut and Fall Maquis. “Each has a distinct taste, but the chestnut honey is the most typically Corsican,” says Tristani. “It has a lot of character—just like us!” (Two weeks later, on a cold rainy day in Paris, tasting this thick, smoky honey is almost like being right back on that beautiful cliffside.)
Tristani, who was previously in forestry, took a beekeeping class at the University of Corsica 12 years ago. “I had such fond memories of the honey my grandfather used to bring down from the mountains at the end of the transhumance,” he recalls. “I love what I do; honey has a powerful imprint of its terroir, and bees are essential to maintaining healthy agriculture on the island.” Honey was also one of Corsica’s first exports—the Romans shipped it back home—and bitter Corsican honey was valued for its medicinal properties. For the time being, Tristani sells his golden nectar exclusively through Corsican retailers, but he may soon be working with a Parisian gourmet shop.
Coming down to the plains around Aléria from the cool of the mountains where Tristani works, the Mediterranean sun becomes surprisingly strong. The island’s oldest port city, Aléria sits directly across the sea from Tuscany, which is visible in the distance. “It’s thanks to you that this huge garden exists,” Jean-Claude Venturini of the Distillerie Mavela tells an American visitor. “After the island was liberated in 1943, American soldiers used DDT and drainage ditches to eradicate the malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Finally, these rich lands could be settled.”
Mavela began making eau de vie from Corsican fruit in 1992, when the market for table fruit became too competitive and complicated. “I went to Alsace to learn distillation techniques,” he relates. “To ensure top quality, we only use what’s in season—grapes in June, plums in August, cedrat [a variety of Mediterranean lemon] in September, chestnuts in November and December....”
Mavela has won several gold medals at the Foire Agricole in Paris, and his latest product is Corsican whiskey, made from chestnut-flour malt produced by the Pietra brewery in Bastia. “Our real breakthrough, though, came when the famous model Laetitia Casta, who’s from Aléria, decided to give bottles of our eau de vie as Christmas presents,” he says. “We couldn’t have asked for better exposure than being chosen by the world’s most beautiful woman. Now we have clients all over the world.”
Later, sitting in a restaurant in Aléria, it’s a bit odd to see “Produit de France” printed on a wine bottle, especially when the cook in the kitchen is singing in Italian, the surrounding countryside looks like Tunisia, and most of the men lingering in the street are Moroccans who came here to work the artichoke fields, orchards and vineyards. But this part of the island has always been a crossroads. The Greeks settled here in the sixth century B.C., followed by the Etruscans, Carthaginians and Romans, who built a thriving city of 80,000. They exported wheat and oysters from the Etang de Diane to Rome, where they were highly appreciated by connoisseurs.
“As far as we know, the oysters were shucked and packed in brine, then enclosed in ceramic jars that were sealed with oil and wax,” says Bernard Pantalacci, owner of one of the two companies that cultivate the lagoon’s oyster beds. “It’s hard to imagine that they were very good, but the Romans adored them.” Today, local oysters are primarily the Portuguese variety grown from spat brought in from the Bay of Arcachon, but there are still a few wild Mediterranean oysters left. “Napoleon craved them during his exile on Elba,” says Pantalacci. “Biweekly shipments to him were, of course, also a way for him to learn what was happening in France and elsewhere in Europe. The boat has just come in—shall we have some?”
The lagoon outside glitters in the morning sun, and the freshly opened oysters are so fleshy and bursting with iodine that it’s easy to see why they were awarded a gold medal at the Foire Agricole in Paris two years ago. (You can also sample them at Aux Coquillages de Diane, a restaurant in Aléria, and at Le Floride and the Bar du Marché in Ajaccio.) “Corsican products will always be relatively expensive because we don’t produce on an industrial scale,” comments Pantalacci. “But thankfully, people want quality and are willing to pay for it.”
Heading north along the coast from the Etang de Diane, it requires a certain skill to avoid being drawn into Bastia’s infernal system of one-way streets. But don’t despair—when you reach Cap Corse, the northernmost point of the island, you are rewarded with some of the most spectacular scenery in the Mediterranean. Beautiful villages like Erbalunga hug tiny shelves by the sea, and elaborate family tombs line the roadside, built by émigrés eager to display their success overseas and to provide themselves and their relatives with excellent views for eternity.
Cutting across the Cap, the Luri River valley is lush and green, a change from the terraced hillsides along the coast where farming was pursued against great odds. Just outside of Luri itself, Association Cap Vert is dedicated to preserving the biodiversity of this corner of the island. “Cap Corse is especially rich because it has always had so much contact with the rest of the world,” explains ethnobotanist Claude Seguy, as she guides a visitor through the association’s gardens and orchards. “Most of the plants here originally came from Genoa and Liguria in the 17th century, but many were also brought back from Puerto Rico and South America by émigrés.”
To illustrate how rich the area is, she reveals that there are no fewer than 21 different varieties of beans in this small corner of Corsica. “Perhaps our most famous vegetables are the onions from the village of Sisco. Corsicans took them to Walla Walla, Washington, which then became a famous onion-growing region.” To support itself, the association, founded in 1991, sells a superb line of fruit and vegetable preserves—including watermelon, white zucchini and green tomato jams and a remarkable eggplant relish—all made from produce grown in its gardens.
From Luri, it’s a spectacular drive down the western coast of Cap Corse to Patrimonio, which is as much of a wine town as Beaune or Saint-Emilion. A new Route des Vins makes it easier than ever for tourists to visit Patrimonio vineyards, where they can taste various vintages and buy directly from producers. “Corsica makes many wonderful wines, including the reds of Ajaccio and Sartène, the sweet apéritif and dessert wines from Cap Corse, and the wines from around Porto Vecchio and Figari,” explains Guy Maestracci, mayor of Patrimonio and a winemaker himself. “But Patrimonio wines are the most famous.”
Like many of their compatriots, the Maestraccis set off to the New World during the 19th century seeking adventure. In the 1830s, they made a fortune growing coffee in Puerto Rico, then returned home during the reign of Napoleon III. The elegant house they built in 1894 has an escalier d’honneur (a horseshoe-shaped staircase) and is a perfect example of what are locally known as “maisons américaines”—the impressive, even a little showy, dwellings of those who succeeded overseas. “We were able to buy our vineyards thanks to the money we made in the New World,” Maestracci explains.
In 1989, Maestracci planted all new vines, and the results have been impressive. His award-winning muscat (Domaine de Pastricciola) is now served at some of Europe’s best restaurants, including Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV in Monaco and Bernard Pacaud’s L’Ambroisie in Paris. He has also been the driving force behind the new Maison des Vins Corse, slated to open within the year. “We need a showcase for Patrimonio wines, but we also need to create a link between wine, other Corsican products and tourism,” he maintains. “As it is, the tourist season is short and intense—basically July and August. That isn’t enough to justify major investments in better infrastructure. But if we could develop year-round tourism through activities related to wine, olive oil and other products, things might change.”
If there is any one part of the island that exemplifies what the future may hold for Corsica, it’s La Balagne, perhaps the loveliest corner of what the Greeks called Callista, “the most beautiful island.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more delightful way to spend an afternoon than gently turning and twisting along the D71, which offers balcony views over the area’s magnificent coastline. With its terraces, olive trees, snug villages, citrus groves and sun, this blessed microregion offers an exceptionally pretty, gentle landscape, especially if you’re arriving from Désert des Agriates, the majestically rugged, arid stretch of land between Saint-Florent and L’Ile-Rousse.
La Balagne still produces excellent olive oil, good wines and a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs, but its number-one product is tourism. Stylish Parisians and Italians have adopted this corner of the island, sharing it with a growing handful of artistic types who are restoring village houses and living here full time. Overall, La Balagne is a promising snapshot of what Corsica may become, a mix of traditional farming, tourism, vacation homes and a community of people—writers, painters, translators—whose professions can be practiced from most anywhere.
Enjoying the sun on a café terrace in the port city of Calvi, Jo Ricco savors dry land for the first time in 48 hours and has no trouble understanding why more and more off-islanders are falling under Corsica’s spell. “My parents and I lived in Paris for three years, and the noise, stress and pollution made us miserable. We also missed seeing friends and family everyday.” As if on cue, Ricco waves to a friend, also a fisherman, who’s just come into the café. “I’ve traveled some, and there are few places in the world that have such varied landscapes in such a small area. The beauty of Corsica is Corsica.”
Ricco puts out from Calvi to fish exclusively for the Callelu restaurant a few doors down. Depending on the weather and the season, he lands several types of sea bream, red mullet, porgy, swordfish and highly prized spiny lobsters. “For centuries, the only fish Corsicans ate were sardines and occasionally anchovies and mackerel,” he says. “We only recently started deep-sea fishing, and now we’re discovering the riches of our coastal waters. They are among the least spoiled in Europe. But for them to stay that way, fishing methods have to be restricted to nets and lines that one man can run. Anything larger, and stocks will be depleted.”
Ricco feels that it is his responsibility and that of his fellow Corsicans to preserve their island, which he sees as the core of their very identity. “The miracle of Corsica is that Ulysses would find it largely unchanged if he were to return today,” he says. “We have to keep it just this pure, just this beautiful for those who follow us.”