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« The Joys of Corsican Cuisine | Main | Corsica: Undiscovered Paradise and Foodie Heaven »
Monday
Nov082010

THE TERROIR OF CORSICA and CORSICAN SPECIALTY FOODS

Delicious charcuterie and cheese at the Farmer's Market in Ajaccio I talked about the extraordinary beauty of the island of Corsica in my previous post. There is no shortage of natural wonders here, from the gorgeous beaches on the coast to the fragrant Maquis-covered mountains of inland Corsica. Experiencing the natural beauty of Corsica is enough of a reason to travel to the island.

But Corsica has so much more to offer. Lounging on the beach, basking in the sun after a tranquil swim, you may think you are in the Caribbean. But when you are sitting at a beach restaurant with your toes buried in the sand, and you order a Calzone filled with a barely poached egg, prosciutto and mozzarella cheese along side a glass of delicate Rose wine produced by a nearby vineyard, it dawns on you. You are in an island sandwiched between FRANCE and ITALY. This is the two greatest cuisines in the world, existing in culinary harmony.

The inner glory of Matt's Prosciutto, Mozzarella and fried egg Calzone at Tamaricciu restaurant The really cool thing is, you're not eating French food and you're not eating Italian food, though elements of both cuisines can be found in many of the dishes you encounter. You are eating Corsican food made almost exclusively with local Corsican ingredients. This is food you cannot eat anywhere else but in Corsica. And you can taste the difference.

Roaming Corsican pigs lounging by the side of the road. Not a care in the world. The French have a special name for locally produced food: "Terroir." The concept of "terroir" has two meanings. The first is literal; it is essentially a reference to the land, the climate, the region where a particular food is grown. But there is a deeper, more complex meaning to the word. It is also a description of the unique, almost indescribable quality and taste of food that is grown in a particular place.

Garden in back of restaurant A Mandria between Corte and Porto Vecchio It is not only the physical land and region where a certain food is grown that makes it taste different. As Anne Willan writes in the Introduction to her cookbook "The Country Cooking of France":
"Terroir isn't merely rainfall, mineral content and angles of exposure to sunlight…Terroir is our cultural and historical link to the land, the expression of the land itself and of the people who live there. To the French…it is an emotionally charged term, for it is food that tells a story."


Picture Perfect Corsican Peaches at the Farmer's Market in Ajaccio The notion of Terroir is what makes dining in Corsica so special. There is a passionate devotion to all things local. So what you eat, and drink, directly connects you to the land that surrounds you. Each bite of delicious lasagna, or prosciutto, or a briny langoustine, each sip of earthy red wine or clear sweet Corsican sparkling water, embodies the essence of Corsica’s land and it’s history. The food has a taste and a quality that you will not experience anywhere else you go in the world.

And each bite tells a story. You think of the sea you just swam in, or the mountain you just crossed, or the pigs you just saw walking down the road. You smell the heady herbs of the Maquis, feel the cool ocean breeze, remember the icy clear waters of the rock pools you swam in earlier that day. Every meal you have in Corsica is a dining experience that somehow involves all your senses at once. And as a result every meal is special. And very delicious.

Fluffy, sugar coated Beignets filled with aged Brocciu cheese at Boulangerie Galeani in Ajaccio CORSICAN SPECIALITY FOODS

The image of the Moor's Head becomes very familiar while you are in Corsica When you are in Corsica you will see the image of the Moor’s Head everywhere you go. The Moor’s Head is the national symbol of the island. It is not only the emblem on the Corsican flag, but also appears on the packaging of all locally made products.

Inside an excellent wine, charcuterie and kitchen supply shop in Bonifacio When you see the Moor’s Head, you know you what you are purchasing was made in Corsica. And this is important. Because when you try the delicious Corsican Charcuterie, Cheese and Honey you’re going to want to make sure you get the real thing.

Woman making fresh beignets outside a bakery in the town of Corte HONEY Corsican honey is very unusual. There is a particular type of bee that can only be found in Corsica, and this leads to a variety of uniquely flavored honey. Corsican honey is, in fact, the only honey in France to be granted AOC status. You may have seen the AOC, or “Appellation of Controlled Origin,” label on fancy French wines or cheeses. It is basically a way to guarantee a product comes from a certain area, as well as to preserve traditional production methods that have been passed from generation to generation. Thus, if you see the label "AOC" on a bottle of Bourdeaux, you know that the grapes are from the town of Bourdeaux, France and that the methods of producing the wine are the same methods that have been used for hundreds of years. You know you are getting an authentic product.

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, with the traditional Apples and Honey. The unique Corsican honey makes this a very special New Year! The fact that Corsican honey is designated AOC is significant. It means that the French government has determined that the unique qualities of the honey can be found in no place but Corsica, and that the traditions of harvesting and producing this honey are invaluable and must be officially preserved.

And if you tasted Corsican honey, you would agree that this is a product that needs to be protected and treasured. Corsican honey is absolutely wild tasting. It certainly does not taste like any honey that I have ever had. There are a number of different kinds of honey and the type is determined by where the bee hive is located. Honey from bees that live at a high altitude taste different from those that live closer to the coast, because the type of flower that the bees pollinate varies based on the location. There is a honey that is made from the chestnut tree, a honey that is made from the flowers of the maquis in winter, and a honey that is made from the flowers of the maquis in spring. Each one has a distinct and intense flavor, both sweet and herbaceous and very complex. The taste lingers and blossoms in your mouth. It's like you are tasting the very essence of "bee." It's pretty mind-blowing.

A group of Corsican bees innocently dining on a piece of silky Prosciutto fat during our meal at the Sperone golf club Speaking of bees...when you go to Corsica, at least to the areas of Corsica that we were in, it's pretty obvious that honey is a big thing here. Because bees are EVERYWHERE. And I'm not exaggerating. Bees quickly become a major part of your day-time Corsica dining experience. At every meal they will hover around your plate and even sometimes eat your food. And there is nothing you can do about it.

But I don't want to scare you. The truth is, the bees are totally harmless as long as you don't try and mess with them. In fact it's pretty enlightening to be in such constant and close proximity to bees and learn not to fear them. Corsicans are so used to bees that at restaurants the waiters instruct you to make a bee offering: Put a small piece of food on a bread plate and place it at the side of your table. The bees will be delighted--and they will, for the most part, stay away from your meal.

Interestingly, Corsican bees (as one waitress told us) love Prosciutto, eggs and Chicken above all else. They are gourmet bees. This fact was proven to us again and again during our Corsican dining experiences. We actually couldn't believe how right this waitress really was.

My delicious vegetarian pizza at Tamaricciu restaurant on the beach at Palombaggia We sat down to lunch at Tamaricciu, located on the beach of Palombaggia. The food here was great. Especially because we were sitting about 30 feet from the water on one of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen, drinking Rose wine and enjoying the cool breeze. It was glorious.

Anyway, Matt, as he so often does, ordered the better of our two dishes. My vegetarian pizza was delicious with fresh artichokes, red peppers and mushrooms and expertly done chewy and crisp crust. But Matt's Calzone, filled with prosciutto, gooey mozzarella cheese and a delicately poached egg was transcendent. It arrived like a giant calzone football, golden brown and charred in just the right places. When he broke into it the egg oozed out over the plate exposing the smoky prosciutto and cheese treasures that lay within.

A Perfect calzone at Tamaricciu on the beach of Palombaggia And that's when the bees descended. I was sitting right next to Matt, munching on my pizza and drinking my wine. The bees couldn't care less about my peppers. Not a single one even approached my plate. But to my left Matt was fully sharing his Calzone with 3 or 4 bees. Really, I don't blame them. The Calzone was that good. But they were all over that plate, little legs dancing around the sticky egg, mouths tearing off (bees rip off food with their mouths, it's crazy) pieces of prosciutto and flying away with them, only to return for more a few minutes later.

Bees enjoying bits of Matt's Calzone At one point a bee landed on our bottle of water and it's legs left egg yolk behind on the glass. That attracted even more bees, who now hovered around our egg-marked water bottle. One time a bee floated over to my pizza, inspected a piece of artichoke with disdain and then drifted back over to dine on a lone piece of pork.

Bees on our bottle of water I'm not going to lie and say this was not annoying. There were moments when I just wanted to eat in peace without the company of the bees. But, like I said, they are not there to hurt you and they never do. And you gotta respect the fact that they love their prosciutto and sweet drippy egg yolk. After all, who doesn't?

CHEESE

Mouthwatering assortment of Cheese at U Stazzu in Ajaccio Corsican honey goes very well alongside a nice piece of Corsican cheese. Corsica produces a lot of wonderful cheese, primarily from sheep and goat's milk. But most famous of them all, and the only one with AOC status, is the soft, ricotta-like Brocciu cheese.

Aged Brocciu cheese for sale at the Farmer's Market in Ajaccio. Note the symbol of the Moor's Head on the packaging Brocciu is considered the national cheese of Corsica. It is produced from November through May and it is best eaten fresh, within 48 hours of production. Brocciu can also be aged for several months, transforming it from a soft, mild and creamy cheese to a more crumbly and tangy one. Brocciu is used in many Corsican dishes, from savory ones such as an omelette or pasta to sweet desserts like a filling for sugar dusted beignets or the base for a refreshing ice cream. You are guaranteed to see it on most Corsican menus in one form or another. We were not in Corsica during Brocciu season, so we tried the aged version. Which was delicious. But apparently it is nothing compared to the fresh product. In one blog post I found on Corsica, the blogger writes that the fresh cheese is so good that: "I’d actually go so far as to say that you shouldn’t visit Corsica any other time of year than during Brocciu season." Oh well. I guess we'll just have to go back sometime.

CHARCUTERIE

Meats hanging in a window in Bonifacio. You don't have to go too far in Corsica to come across some enticing meats hanging around. Where there is cheese, there is charcuterie. And the abundance of free range pigs and wild boar on the island guarantees top notch cured meats. The pig's diet consists of acorns, chestnuts, wild berries and the herbs of the maquis, giving the a meat a distinct flavor.

You really get to know your food here--the pigs on the side of the road are so tame and used to people that you can walk right up and pet them Corsican charcuterie is dense and smoky and pungent. Unlike, for example, an Italian prosicutto, which you might describe as mild, sweet and delicate, Corsican charcuterie tends to knock you off your feet with it's bold and assertive flavor and texture. Try the Figatelli (liver sausages) and the Prosciutto-like Prizutto for a good example of these really fantastic and unusual pork delights.

We stumbled across this Farmer's market as we were leaving Ajaccio. Good thing. It was awesome. Everywhere you go in Corsica, there's bound to be salamis and hams hanging around somewhere. In Ajaccio (pronounced a-ja-chio), the capital city of Corsica and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, we stumbled across a great farmer's market. There was an enormous selection of beautiful produce, fresh breads and cheeses. Many of the stands were selling excellent looking charcuterie. I had to try some. After a few minutes of browsing we settled on one stand with an enticing array of thin, almost black, wrinkled blood sausages and thick salamis with dark slightly molded rinds.

Vendor with lots of character at one of the stands in the Ajaccio Farmer's market The owner of this stand was a man wearing a red bandana around his neck and a black Indiana Jones-style hat. He was smiling and talking loudly and slicing off pieces of a giant ham leg to hand to passerby’s.

When we ordered a small portion of prosciutto and blood sausage (or, rather, pointed to them, since he didn't speak much English), the man asked if we were Canadian. We said we were from New York City. He then proceeded to take a gun out of his pants, laughing all the while, wave it around for a second and then place it on a piece of wax paper along with a slice of ham. He laughed some more and gave us our packages. We had no idea what the fire arm display was all about. It was very strange. But it didn’t bother us. That sausage tasted great.

A poetic display of Gun and Ham. Ajaccio also has a very famous Charcuterie and cheese shop called U Stazzu. Outside the store there is a sign that says only 15 people can enter the tiny space at once. Inside, the smell of aged meats and stinky cheeses smacks you right in the face. It's meaty, moldy, smoky and spicy all at once.

Inside the U Stazzu in Ajaccio. A must go to when in the city. Baskets display huge salamis of varying sizes. Some of them cost over 50 Euros for a single thick link. A display of cheese at the back end of the space makes you weep and drool with hungry joy. There are jars of delicious looking pork terrines, sweet maquis flavored jams and almonds suspended in honey. This is the kind of specialty food shop where dreams come true. The kind of place that makes you want to move right to Ajaccio and never look back.

Close up of the astonishing Salami at U Stazzu. Some of these cost over 50 Euros. SEA URCHIN There is one Corsican delicacy which we did not have the opportunity to try, since its season is only from December through the end of March. And I was devastated. Because for me this delicacy is the greatest delicacy of all, the food I love more than any other: The briny, oceanic, creamy almost foie-gras like glory of the mighty Sea Urchin.

Some people feel sea urchin is an acquired taste. Matt often thinks it tastes like toilet. But those of us who are devoted sea urchin lovers know the profound delicious-ness of this spiny sea creature. And the fact that it is such a delicacy in Corsica was yet another reason why this was my new favorite place on earth. Apparently, when in season, the locals just pick them out of the water, take them to the shore and pop them open to enjoy alongside a glass of white wine and some crusty bread. HEAVEN. Now I have 2 reasons to go back: Fresh Brocciu cheese and Sea urchin. Springtime in Corsica? Sounds like a plan.

UP NEXT: THE JOYS OF CORSICAN CUISINE

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Reader Comments (7)

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December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPadded Bra
I'm sorry in advance as I know this is petty of me. But the photo you put up of bees eating proscuitto fat, are not bees, they are wasps. Bees don't eat meat or buzz around at food tables looking for scraps. They collect pollen from flowers and make honey. Pollen and honey are bees food source. So where there are flowers...there are bees Wasps on the other hand are a massive pain, nibbling bits of meat and getting in to sweet drinks and generally making a horrible nuisance of themselves.
April 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMartha
Thank you for your post. These are bees, not wasps. Not all bees are honey bees. Corsican bees are known for this behavior.
April 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterelisabeth
They're wasps. Honestly and truly pictures of wasps.
September 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteramc
Those are wasps, or yellow jackets. Bees have black legs, even in Corsica. No bee on Earth eats meat.
September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlex
WASPS. Bees have hairy bodies and legs in order to collect pollen. Wasps have smooth bodies, slender legs, and a nipped-in waist.
March 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRegardez403

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