The herbs of the maquis fill the air on this rugged Mediterranean island and contribute to its unique cuisine.
Corsica, southeast of the French mainland and west of Italy, is France's wild west. Corsicans protect their wild island fiercely, and the cuisine reflects their free-ranging, hunter-gatherer character. Completely surrounded by the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian seas, Corsicans are unmoved by fishing and the fruits of the sea — although fish and shellfish are on the menu in coastal resorts — preferring the safety of the inland and upland refuges of Haute Corse and the natural produce to be found there.
The maquis, the thick and aromatic vegetation that covers most of the island, flavors the flesh of Corsica's free-range pigs, sheep and goats, giving meat a very different flavor to that from farm-raised animals. Its herbs, including rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, juniper and myrtle, as well as wild mushrooms are used in soupe Corse or as spices for roasts and stews, especially the famous civet de sanglier, or wild-boar stew.
Even the brocciu — the goat or sheep whey cheese often used with mint to flavor everything from trout to omelet — carries the distinctive flavor of the island's herbs. Part of the island is covered with chestnut forests, and Corsicans have long used chestnut instead of wheat flour as a staple for making bread, polenta and even beer.
When to go: October to December are the best months for Corsica's winter cuisine and the brilliant foliage of the Castagniccia, the chestnut forest east of Corte.
Planning: Give yourself at least a week; two would be better. There is one airport on the island, or you can arrive by ferry from Nice or Cannes and sail for Livorno, Italy from Bastia. Car rental is essential for exploring the island. Corsica's music, film and wind festivals are worth checking out. Napoleon's birthplace and the Fesch Museum in Ajaccio are key visits, as are the meglithic dolmens and menhirs at Filitosa
Websites: www.corsica.net, www.visit-corsica.com, www.bastia-tourisme.com
Cheese and Chestnuts
Many Corsican cheeses are too strong to eat indoors. Bastelicaccia is a soft, creamy sheep cheese; sartenais is hard and sharp; cuscioni is an unctuous sheep cheese with a dark, earthy flavor.
Chestnuts are a key Corsican ingredient, used for a cake called Castagna, panetta bread, dry biscuits and powdered and sugared beignets (doughnuts) eaten on special occasions.