Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
February 2, 2023
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Mangia Bene

    Corsica was largely isolated in the Middle Ages, although trade fairs sometimes brought regions into contact with one another. Still, these were enclosed local economies. On Corsica, the people of Bocognano and Bastelica regarded each other as foreigners. (A few years ago I turned my car back because the mountain road between the two towns was too perilous.) The Corsicans raised their pigs and tended their sheep herds. They grew a limited amount of olive trees. Very little was imported or exported. Maybe this isolation is why one finds both lard and olive oil in Corsican cooking where elsewhere it was one or the other. But Corsica was not totally isolated. Huge boar, stag, and wolf hunts were organized to protect the flocks, and many of these beasts were exported for the menageries of mainland princes.

    Corsica was ruled by the Genoese until the French, with Turkish support, wrested the island from them in 1553. The Corsicans hated the Genoese, the nobles because they were forced to submit to them, and the people because of the poor harvests that ensued and the fact that the Genoese introduced new agricultural methods that disturbed their traditional way of life. The island had few resources and the nearly constant wars didn't help. Mercenaries and soldiers of every kind were based at one time or another on Corsica. There were French, Genoese, Turks, Algerians, Germans, Italians, and Spanish, and they all looted, spoiled crops, and burned villages. Corsican seacoast towns faced the constant attacks of pirates. Even today a circumnavigation of Corsica demonstrates the scarcity of coastal communities, a result of these piratical depredations. Corsica was a valuable communications center during wartime and an important base for coast watching. Because the Barbary corsairs controlled the passage between southern Sardinia and North Africa, ships sailing from Cartagena, Valencia, Barcelona, M├ílaga, and Alicante to Genoa, Leghorn, or Naples had to pass within sight of Corsica. Corsica was not often the destination of these ships, and the Corsicans themselves often had to rely on home grown foods such as chestnuts rather than the fruits of import. In fact, at times, a good portion of what Corsicans ate was based on chestnuts, a habit still to be found in Corsican kitchens.

    Corsica's isolation has meant that its gastronomy is preserved more than most from medieval days, especially in the area of charcuterie, breads, cheeses, and soups. Most Corsican cheeses, both hard and fresh cheeses, still don't have names and the many varieties are known as either fromage (cheese) or brocciu (a particular kind of ricotta cheese made from ewe or goat whey). Chestnuts were once the sole source of food during wrenching famines and known as tree bread, but today they find their way into many delicious preparations, such as suffiantu, a chestnut and vanilla soufflé, or maccaredda, chestnut flour fritters cooked with salt pork.

 (Photo: making brocciu cheese)

   In the mountains they still eat misgiscia, a fillet of goat that is marinated for one or two days in vinegar and then dried with a linen cloth and flavored with rosemary and garlic before being seasoned with salt and pepper and skewered on wood sticks to dry in the sun. It's then cooked in a ragout or over a wood fire. The eating of soup was always filled with meaning as we see in this Corsican proverb: O magna a minestra, o salta a finestra (Eat the soup, or jump out of the window), meaning to pass up food is suicide. Even today Corsican soups such as soupe paysanne are thick and dense and often constitute the whole of an evening meal, unlike the rest of France where soups are served as a first course and are often quite delicate.