A Taste of Corsica

I know, I’m breaking my self-imposed rule. Some point after starting this blog over two years ago, I realised what I really wanted to write about was Italian food, traditions and travel. A decision to maintain an Italian focus was thus taken. Then, last month, TP, TT and I headed off to Corsica for a much-needed break. Having just returned from two very relaxing weeks there, writing off this stunning French island as ‘un-Italian’ doesn’t feel completely right though. You see, from antiquity to the mid 1700s, Corsica was ruled by a succession of Italian maritime powers. Ancient necropoli, Romanesque polychrome churches, medieval bridges and citadels were just some of the many remnants of Etruscan, Roman, Pisan and Genoese rule we came across. There was also the Corsican dialect (much of the signage on the island is written in Corsican and French) which very much resembled Italian. And, of course, there was the food. Many specialties were identical to neighbouring Sardinia and the Italian mainland, differing only in spelling (think panzetta instead of pancetta or lonzu as opposed to lonza) or ingredients (the polenta or pulenta that is traditionally prepared in Corsica, is made with chestnut flour not cornmeal like on the Italian mainland).

Now, during our holiday, I took it very easy in the kitchen, preferring to devote my time to beach-going, reading and the occasional sightseeing trip. I kept TP and TT satisfied with easy pantry dishes like pasta al pomodoro and spaghetti with breadcrumbs and anchovies. When it got too hot for stovetop cooking, no-cook salads and the ever reliable prosciutto e melone were served instead. We opted on several occasions to eat out (see my mini travel guide below for more details) as well, in great part because we wanted to learn more about island’s cuisine. But, even as cooking and the constant recipe testing that has become a big part of my life in the past two years took a backseat, I made many a mental note about the local foods and dishes we encountered.

One ingredient in particular predominated that cerebral shorthand, partly because we came across it so much, Brocciu, a curd cheese made with a mix of milk (usually ewe’s or to a less extent goat’s) and whey. Similar to ricotta (true ricotta is a byproduct of cheesemaking and is made with leftover whey and the smallest amount of milk), it generally consumed fresh, though it can also be aged for up to a month to make brocciu passu or brocciu vechju. Wherever we went, it popped up, in sweet and savoury dishes alike. I had it on top of a leavened flat bread called migliacciu, as a filling inside cannelloni and sardines and in a citrusy crustless baked cheesecake called fiadone. When I tasted this dessert in its traditional form, and in a sublime reinterpretation (this one had a crust made with crushed canistrelli, a local biscuit) at a restaurant in the island’s old capital of Corte, I knew that this would be the first Corsican recipe I would try replicating back home in Turin.

Obviously, there was no fresh brocciu in Corso Brunelleschi to make my fiadone with, but some ewe’s milk ricotta from one of the vendors proved to be a good substitute. Made with just four ingredients – brocciu, eggs, sugar and grated lemon zest – it also proved to be refreshingly easy and uncomplicated to make, at least if you ignore those recipes (and there sure were many) which tell you to separate the egg yolks from their whites. There is no need to bother incorporating air into this dessert, as it should be flat, dense and slightly grainy, reminiscent of the curds which form after adding rennet to the heated ewe’s milk and whey. Simply beat the eggs with the sugar until well-combined and the latter has dissolved (no need to get to the pale and thickened ribbon stage), add your well-drained brocciu or ricotta and lemon zest, mix until smooth and you’ll be rewarded with not having to wash up your egg beaters and an extra mixing bowl. It is also makes a irresistibly sweet yet tangy conclusion to a meal. Bon Appetitu!

Ingredients

  • 500 g fresh brocciu (or ricotta)
  • 4 eggs
  • 150 g sugar
  • grated zest of 1 organic lemon
  • butter, for greasing cake tin
  • flour, for dusting cake tin

Method
Drain brocciu in a fine mesh sieve or in a colander lined with cheesecloth, ensuring all excess liquid is removed. In a separate bowl, beat eggs with sugar until well combined and the latter is dissolved. Add drained brocciu and lemon zest and mix until obtaining a smooth consistency free of lumps. Pour batter into a greased and dusted cake tin and bake in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees Celsius for 30-35 minutes or until the cake’s edges have begun to shrink away from cake tin’s sides and golden brown on top. Leave to cool and store in refrigerator. Serve cold or at room temperature dusted with icing sugar or some fresh fruit.

And, just in case you’d like to more about Corsica, here’s a wrap-up of where we visited, accompanied by some snapshots.

Aleria
Located on Corsica’s eastern coastal plain, Aleria was an important Roman port and naval base which became capital of the island during the Emperor Augustus’ reign. The town is home to an important archaelogical site containing remains from Phoenician, Etruscan, Greek and Roman times. We went to the town twice, for dinner at the beachside restaurant Le Bounty, which specialises in seafood. A nearby lagoon, l’Etang de Diana, is renowned for its oyster, clam and mussel farming.

Bastia

The island’s main passenger and commercial port, we got to know this city on Corsica’s northeast coast well. I must say, its decaying charm (for every stunning ochre and salmon-coloured old building proudly overlooking the city’s coves, there were several dilapidated ones) won me over on both our visits. Originally a fishing village, the Genoese built a fortress or bastiglia (hence the name, Bastia) in the 1300s and the site went on to become the capital of the island until Genoese dominance came to an end in the mid 1700s.

For views of the old and modern ports, walk up the very steep hill (preferably not in the midday heat like we did!) along Rue du Colle and Cours Favale to Jardin Romieu and the citadel built by the island’s Genoese rulers in the early 1500s. If visiting the city at the weekend, you’re in luck because on Saturdays and Sundays, Place du Marché is home to a large food market. For a snack on the run or cheap meal on the run, look out for some vendors preparing and selling deep-fried local specialities such as sweet and savoury  beignets and migliacciole among the myriad fruit and veggie produce stalls. Typical of Bastia are those aforementioned brocciu-filled sardines. TP and I had some sardines à la bastiaise at A Scaletta, a hole in the wall, family-run restaurant overlooking the old port. Oh, and for antique (and food prop!) hunters, the square adjacent to the modern passenger port, Place Saint Nicolas, hosts a flea market every Sunday morning.

Calvi

Personally, I loved the unpolished, diamond in the rough that was Bastia. If Instagrammability is what you look for in holiday destinations though, then Calvi is definitely a Corsican town you should consider visiting. Also featuring a Genoese citadel, its 4km long stretch of beach attracts many visitors in summer. For a view of the former (and a snapshot guaranteed to get those precious likes and follows), wade in the latter’s unbelievable shallow and crystal clear waters south-westwards, camera or smartphone in tow, and click.

Corte

An inland, mountain-side town that served as the island’s capital during the shortlived Corsican Republic (1755-1769). Also the site of a medieval fortress, worth a visit for panaromic views of the surrounding green peaks and valleys. After working up a sweat exploring the old bastion, go for lunch or dinner at the nearby restaurant U Museu. Good food and friendly service at very reasonable prices. Oh, and the myrtle-infused liqueur (typical of Corsica and Sardinia) they serve at the conclusion of your meal is housemade to boot!

Ponte Novu
Along with citadels and coastal watchtowers, the Genoese also built many bridges to make navigating the island’s interior easier. While returning from our day trip to Calvi, we just happened to chance upon the very bridge where, in May 1769, the forces of Pasquale Paoli’s Corsican Republic were defeated by French King Louis XV’s. The island was annexed by France the following year. In September 1943, the retreating German army almost completely destroyed the bridge.

Prunete de Cervione
It may lack the glamour of Calvi, but our base in this seaside village on the island’s east coast was the perfect location to relax and take things at a slow pace. When we weren’t day-tripping, our routine was as follows: go to the beach in the morning, return to our rental accommodation for lunch, nap, and then go to the pool in the townhouse complex we were staying at. The weather was hot during the day but cooled down just enough to make going to sleep easy come night-time.

Food-wise, the area surrounding Prunete is renowned for its hazelnuts, apiculture, wine, olive oil and cheese production. Lots of local growers sell their fruit and vegetables directly from their farms/properties. Oh, and for the seafood lovers, local fishermen gather to sell their catch in the car park of the local Utile supermarket every Friday evening.

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