Cucina Conversations: Another Taste of Corsica

Corsica. It’s officially been a part of Italy’s northwestern neighbour France since 1769. Yet, two months after my family’s second visit (see this link here for more about our first visit) to the Île de Beauté, I still feel writing about the island and its cuisine are perfectly appropriate for this quarterly edition of the Cucina Conversations roundtable, which is devoted to the topic of Italian travel and food.

Until the Battle of Ponte Novu in May 1769, when the forces of Pasquale Paoli’s Corsican Republic were defeated by French King Louis XV’s, Corsica had been ruled by a succession of Italian maritime powers. Ancient necropoli, Romanesque polychrome churches, medieval bridges and citadels are just some of the many remnants of Etruscan, Roman, Pisan and Genoese rule scattered across the rugged, mountainous isle. Another important cultural legacy attesting to a strong Italian influence include the Corsican dialect which very much resembles the Tuscan and Ligurian ones. And, of course, there is the food. Gastronomic parallels between the island, its southern neighbour Sardinia, and the Italian peninsula to its east truly were present constantly during our travels there. The shots of the myrtle berry-infused liqueur we drank to conclude our meal. The cured pork products like panzetta and lonzu made from forest roaming pigs we sampled with ravenous abandon. The fresh pastas stuffed with chard and brocciu cheese, like ravioli and cannelloni. I wanted to know more about these all and their connection to Italy.

Sure enough, soon after returning to Turin in early September, I immediately ordered the only two books I could find about Corsican cuisine in English to satisfy that curiosity: long term Swiss-English expat and restauranteur Rolli Lucarotti’s Recipes from Corsica and Corsican wine merchant Nicolas Stromboni’s Corsica: the Recipes. I particularly found myself drawn to Lucarotti’s tome, which is the ideal combination of memoir, history and of course, cookbook.

As Lucarotti relates in the introduction to her enthralling book, malaria and the threat of invasion forced much of the island’s inhabitants to settle in the mountainous forested interior until the Second World War, when the American armed forces sprayed the mosquito-ridden east coast with DDT. Only in the second half of the 20th century did local fishermen begin to exploit and enjoy the considerable spoils of its coastline en masse.

Corsican villagers instead subsisted on what they grew in their gardens or smallholdings. Sometimes they would forage from the fragrant dense shrub that covers much of island known as the maquis. Drying, salting, pickling and smoking foods ensured their longevity throughout the scarce winters. Attics were used for storing dried fruits, chestnuts, pulses and cereals. Cured hams, sausages, oil, cheeses, wine, honey and jams, on the other hand could be found in household cellars. Fresh meat was a luxury only the very rich could afford to eat regularly. Feast days such as Christmas and Easter were the two main occasions when the island’s inhabitants enjoyed cabri (milk-fed goat) and milk-fed lamb, respectively.

In typically autumn fashion, the weather has now cooled down considerably and many a vendor in Corso Brunelleschi is currently selling castagne or chestnuts, so my attention was recently drawn back to Lucarotti’s chapter on this foodstuff and the pivotal role it long played in the diet of Corsica’s population. Indeed, there’s a very good chance that the weekly bread that Corsicans made in the past was made with chestnut flour. Corsicans from the Niolu region in the island’s north proudly proclaimed that they could live on pane di legnu e vinu di petra, meaning ‘bread from wood and wine from stone’. Even in times of great scarcity, the chestnut could always be relied on to be harvested, dried and ground into flour.

As it turns out, the island’s former Genoese masters were in great part responsible for the central role occupied by ‘the bread tree’ in the local diet. In 1548, the Genoese governor issued a decree ordering that each landowner and tenant plant at least one chestnut, one mulberry, one olive, and one fig tree each year, under the fine of three lire for each tree not planted. Fearing famine, similar decrees were issued by the Genoese authorities the following century, with one in 1619 ordering ten trees per year to be planted. Cereals were almost entirely substituted by chestnuts, famines became less recurrent and the island’s landscape was radically changed by these chestnut plantations. A case in point is Castagniccia, the region to the south of the island’s main port, Bastia, which got its name for its wide expanse of chestnut (castagnu) forests.

Initially, I had a hard time choosing from Lucarotti’s chestnut-based recipes. There were a range of preparations which would have sustained the population during meagre times such as pulenda (chestnut flour polenta), ballotte or boiled chestnuts flavoured with wild fennel and a porridge-like breakfast preparation known as brillulis in the island’s north and granalijoli in the south made by combining water, chestnut flour and goat’s milk. Then there was richer fare such as chestnut flour fritters, flans, tarts, cakes and jam. Another important Genoese gastronomic legacy – that of fresh pasta like ravioli – was evident in her recipe for a basic chestnut flour-based pasta dough. As soon as I came across the recipe for nicci di farina castagnina, or chestnut flour crepes though, I knew exactly what I wanted to make.

Remarkably similar in name and form to their Tuscan counterparts, necci, Corsican nicci probably date from the island’s period of Pisan domination, which came to end after the Pisa’s defeat in Battle of Meloria against rival maritime republic Genoa in 1284. Funnily enough, the Corsicans serve these in an almost identical way to the Tuscans, wrapped around a filling of brocciu (a local curd cheese similar to ricotta made with a mix of milk, usually ewe’s or goat’s, and whey) and drizzled with honey.

The recipe below is not exactly the same as Lucarotti’s, who uses milk and eggs in her batter. I have opted for a thinner batter with a 1 to 2 flour to liquid ratio like hers though, after finding the almost 1 to 1 ratio water and flour-based batters of many Tuscan necci and Corsican nicci recipes to be too thick and dense. I really like the idea of spreading the brocciu or ricotta on my crepe and rolling it into a nice neat log that’s then drizzled in honey. I found a thicker batter resulted in crepes that were less easily pliable.

In a distinctly French restauranteur’s touch, Lucarotti also suggests adding a couple of spoonfuls of eau de vie when whipping up the brocciu or ricotta or flambeeing the finished chestnut crepes with the liquor. I’ve left it out however, preferring to bring out the three essential flavours of naturally sweet chestnut, cheese and honey. Do feel free to add the liquor or flambee your crepes though if you wish! Also, please note that I used a non-stick skillet with a diameter of 21 cm to prepare my ten nicci. Using a smaller or larger pan will probably result in a higher or lower number than those indicated.

Corsican nicci

Ingredients (makes about 10 nicci)

  • 200 g chestnut flour, sifted
  • 2 to 3 heaped tbps wheat flour, sifted (optional)
  • 500 mL water
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • olive oil, for frying
  • 200 g fresh sheep or goat’s brocciu (or ricotta), firm and drained of excess liquid, for serving
  • runny chestnut honey, for serving

Method

Place chestnut flour and flour and salt in mixing bowl. Add water in a slow and steady stream to avoid forming lumps. Whisk until batter is smooth. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of sifted wheat flour if you feel your batter to be on the thin side. Whisk energetically until well-incorporated. Cover and leave batter to rest for a couple of hours.

Lightly grease a non-stick skillet with a couple of drops of olive oil and heat on medium heat. Pour almost a ladleful of batter into the skillet’s centre and tilt the pan to ensure that batter spreads evenly all over the cooking surface. Cook until the crepe bubbles and its edges crispen and pull away from the sides of the skillet. Flip the crepe with a spatula and cook on the other side. When ready, transfer your crepe to a warm plate and continue to stack your crepes on it as you cook them.

Whisk the brocciu or ricotta until smooth. Divide the curd cheese between the nicci and roll them up. Drizzle some chestnut honey over the rolled up nicci. Best served warm as a sweet afternoon snack or as a dessert to conclude your meal.

In the meantime, here’s a wrap-up of some favourite snapshots and memories (not all food-related!) from two wonderful weeks of holidaying on this enchanting island. Unlike last year, when we were based in the beachside town of Prunete de Cervione on the island’s east coast, this time round we chose to base ourselves with some good friends who own a house in the town of Marine de Sant’Ambroggio, which is located in the Balagne region on the island’s northwest coast.

  • Watching the ships come in and out of Corsica’s main passenger and commercial port, the diamond in the rough northeastern city of Bastia.
  • Taking TT to watch her first circus in Marine de Sant’Ambroggio.
  • Poaching fish in crazy water or all’acqua pazza with the locally and sustainably farmed sea bass (loup de Calvi) several times for dinner. Here’s the Rachel Roddy non-recipe I referred to when making this.
  • Sharing meals, moments and sightseeing trips with our friends and their beautiful children.
  • Trying the lip-puckeringly tangy lemonade-like drink at Clos Antonini in the enchanting mountain-top village of Sant’Antonino. This informal, family-run establishment is the perfect stopover for a refreshment. Their freshly-squeezed juice is made from lemons of their cultivation. They also produce grape-based juices in autumn, wine and olive oil.
  • Trying the local AOC Calvi wines at Clos Landry, Enclos des Anges and Clos Columbu. TT and our friends’ two young sons particularly loved the donkeys and contemporary sculptures at Clos Culombu.
  • The exhilarating drive inland through the mountains and forests to get to Calacuccia, a much-loved spot by locals and visitors alike for river swimming. It was truly hard to beat seeing all those pigs, sheep and cows freely roaming the roadsides and grazing the forest floors in search of food.
  • More river swimming slightly closer to our base in the northwest at Le Fango.
  • Kayaking and snorkelling in the pristine waters of Puntu di Spanu and Lumio beaches.
  • Watching soldiers from the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment of the French Foreign Legion do their morning airbourne drills from our vantage point at Lumio beach. This Regiment has been based in Calvi since 1967.
  • Taking TT for her first pony ride at the Centre Equestre de Balagne in Lumio. We actually got taken for a bit for a ride by Nougatine, un poney très gourmand (a very hungry pony)!
  • Visiting the Genoese citadel of Calvi. Along with chestnut forests and bridges, coastal citadels and watchtowers are the most important remnants of Genoese rule on the island.
  • Watching some locals play a game of bocce in Saint Florent and buying some beautiful handmade knives while stopping over at that seaside town on our way back home.

Still looking for more Italian travel and gastronomic inspiration? Then visit the posts of my fellow Cucina Conversations bloggers:

Carmen of The Heirloom Chronicles is concluding her stunning series of posts about Sicily (see here and here for parts 1 and 2) with a recipe for almond granita and some lovely photos from the Baroque gem that is Noto.

Marialuisa of Marmellate di Cipolle, who lives in the southern Italian region of Calabria, has been inspired by a trip to the Valtellina in Lombardy and has a lovely recipe for a fresh pasta typical of that region called pizzoccheri.

Finally, chances are you’re wondering about the radio silence on my social media accounts, as well as this blog in the past couple of months. I’ll reveal what’s been going in my upcoming newsletter, which is due out later this month. Rest assured though, all is well! To receive exclusive updates and recipes straight in your inbox, be sure to subscribe at this link here.

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