Soul food of Corsica
Nicolas Stromboni, looks at the Med island’s food heritage and some of its celebrated meat and vegetables. He also selects three recipes perfect for this time of year
The island’s richness in meat products often makes you forget the seafood – wrongly, by the way. We say that Corsicans are above all meat-eaters, which is fair but simplistic, because even though the mountains and immense forests did nourish and shelter Corsicans from danger for many years, that hasn’t been true for at least a century.
Of course, the distinctive topography of the island does lend itself to different modes of raising animals, and the Corsican does remain above all a herder rather than a sailor.
It’s the ewes and cows that often find their place on the plains and in the hills. The sheep aren’t generally raised for meat, but the importance of Christmas and Easter celebrations encourages herders to raise lambs specifically for these occasions.
For cattle, it’s the opposite: there are breeds raised for meat, which are well acclimatised to the sometimes difficult environment. We primarily raise calves for veal, which remains the most commonly eaten red meat product. We never raise cattle to become adults, unless they’re for breeding, because of the modest resources available for nourishing them and the lack of suitable pasture. For this reason, you’ll see very few steers.
In the mountains, the space is occupied more by goats and pigs, although a number of small Corsican cows are still found there. The goats provide much-appreciated kids, and the pigs supply fresh meat during slaughtering times. It is still quite rare to eat pork out-side of this time, and that’s a shame because the flesh is firm and the taste assertive.
Poultry and rabbits are still raised in the countryside, and some young farmers are even starting to develop farms devoted specifically to their production.
When it comes to wild animals, we still find game with feathers and with fur. The boar is king of the Maquis heathlands, and tends to breed to pest levels. Hares and rabbits are also abundant, but deer and wild sheep, which in the old days were hunted, have almost disappeared. Today they are highly protected.
Corsican fruits and vegetables
We tend to forget the richness of Corsica’s fertile soil. It was once a land of mixed farming with essentially pastoral origins, but more and more farmers were forced to intensify their farming and diversify production.
The land has always had to meet the demands of its own people, region by region, in a self-suffient way. Over time, this allowed a diversification of our market gardening heritage, which is still found today. In the past, it was unthinkable to procure goods for money, especially when we could exchange our excess production. Besides, bartering was a means of overcoming the taboo around money, a taboo that prevented us for a certain time from trading with Sardinia. We know that throughout their history Corsicans were great producers and mediocre merchants, and still today, much remains of this notion…
Farms were, above all, producers of grains for both animals and people: wheat, barley, corn, oats, bran. But also everything that could be dried or stored to see us through the long periods of cold: onions, potatoes, garlic, lentils, chickpeas, beans and even split peas. Today, only beans and potatoes are really cultivated; the rest has gradually become anecdotal.
In contrast, when it comes to pure vegetable farming, the customs and practices have evolved. No one submits any more to the constraints of the past, and the Corsican market gardener these days is a curious person, open, looking to experiment, without the demands for survival of the old days. They are mature, conscious of the ecological stakes in being the guarantor of a certain island heritage.
In Corsica as elsewhere, we’re experiencing a return to the ‘culture of the product’, and consumers hesitate much less to spend time in order to eat well. It’s quite common to find organic or farmers’ markets throughout the summer, or indeed the whole year. Eating well in Corsica is no longer a question of availability nor of budget, but simply a different way of envisaging our relationship with our plate.
What was your concept for the book?
I wanted a militant book that talks about Corsica, which I know and live in everyday life. The bet was risky; the angle innovative. I wanted this book to be embodied by Corsicans who were in love with the product and committed to a socially responsible approach.
How does being an island shape the country’s approach to food?
Corsica is a mountain in the sea. For this reason it offers products of the sea, plains and mountains. In this regard, Corsica must be seen as a country with a strong agrarian gastronomy, ie. a product worked on just to make the best of it.
You devote a whole chapter to the pig – why?
Delicatessen is an emblematic product and has always been the basis of subsistence in all the valleys of the island. So it’s part of our DNA. A pedagogical approach was needed to explain how much it is a multifaceted product with many parts to be valued.
What did you learn when writing the book?
Above all, this book allowed me to see how immense the potential to exploit is. Corsica must promote this exceptional gastronomic heritage and make it an economic asset on a European or even international scale.
Did you know most of them to begin with?
Because of my job as a wine merchant, spiceman and taster I have highlighted artisans and producers anchored in a process of excellence and whose rigour and quality of products I have tested.
What are the five essential ingredients for any Corsican chef?
The heritage is so rich that it is full of choice...
What would be your ultimate Corsican three course meal with wine?
Raw langoustines, Vuletta (swine cheek) and Smoked cheese. The wine? A white Chiesa Nera from the Clos Venturi.
Is tradition giving way to new thinking – a modern Corsican cuisine?
Tradition guides us, allowing chefs from all walks of life to grasp the essence of our products and invent new recipes. It is a team effort that works for the pleasure of the taste buds.
What three things summmarize Corsican cuisine?
Common sense, proximity, complex and simple at the same time.
Lentils and Figatelli
Enamelled cast-iron casserole pot
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 figatelli (Corsican liver sausage) each cut into quarters
100 g (3½ oz) onions
2 garlic cloves
a few sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
2 thick slices vuletta (pork cheek), diced
25 g (1 oz) tomato paste (concentrated purée)
100 ml (3½ fl oz) white wine
400 g (14 oz) green lentils, blanched in salted water
salt and black pepper
½ bunch parsley, chopped
1. Heat the butter and olive oil in an enamelled cast-iron casserole pot and fry the figatelli until brown. Remove from the pot and set aside.
2. Dice the onions, shallots and carrots and add them to the pot with the garlic cloves, thyme and bay leaves. Sweat without colouring.
3. Stir in the vuletta, then add the tomato paste. Leave to cook for two minutes, then deglaze with the wine and flambé. Reduce the liquid by half, then add the figatelli, lentils and enough hot water to cover the lentils by 2 cm (¾ in).
4. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
5. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook for about 1 hour. The lentils are cooked when soft but still slightly firm.
6. Add the parsley and serve.
Very Big Corsican Soup with ham bone
A large saucepan or stockpot, a large enamelled cast-iron casserole pot, a skimmer
400 g (14 oz) ham bone
2 onions, cut into large dice
100 ml (3½ fl oz) olive oil
3 carrots, cut into large dice
2 celery stalks, cut into large dice
2 leeks, cut into large dice
¼ green cabbage, cut into large dice
1 thyme sprig, plus extra leaves for garnish
2 bay leaves
3 tomatoes, chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled
120 g (4½ oz) dried coco rose beans or borlotti beans
1 handful cooked peas, mashed
1 small handful coarse salt
3 potatoes, diced
1 slice marrow, diced
3 zucchini (courgettes)
4–5 silverbeet (Swiss chard) leaves and stalks, chopped
freshly ground black pepper
1. Place the ham bone in a large saucepan filled with cold water and bring to the boil. Once it starts boiling, remove from the heat and drain. Repeat this step, then leave it to boil over medium heat for five minutes. Drain.
2. In a large cast-iron casserole pot, sweat the onion in the olive oil, then add the carrot, celery, leek, cabbage, thyme, bay leaves, tomato and garlic. Stir gently and
cook for two minutes. Add enough water to cover the vegetables by 2 cm (¾ in), then add the ham bone with the beans and peas and season with salt. Bring to
the boil then reduce the heat to very low, cover and cook for about two hours, skimming the surface regularly.
3. Add the remaining vegetables and cook, still over a very low heat, for another two hours, checking that the water level doesn’t reduce too much and adding more
4. Remove from the heat and leave to cool a little. Season with pepper, garnish with a little extra thyme and serve immediately.
I often add pesto and a drizzle of olive oil just before serving this dish. When I was a child, this soup was served in two ways: the liquid over a slice of stale bread, with a little aged tomme cheese and a drizzle of olive oil; and with the vegetables as a separate meal, almost without liquid.
A small bowl, a large bowl, a non-stick 20 × 30 cm (8 × 12 in) loose-based flan (tart tin).
150 g (5½ oz) sugar
80 g (2¾ oz/¼ cup) clementine marmalade
20 g (¾ oz) preserved clementine peel
500 g (1 lb 2 oz) sheep’s cream
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon plain (all-purpose) flour
125 ml (4 fl oz/½ cup) citron eau de vie or
For brocciu Chantilly cream:
150 g (5½ oz) brocciu cheese or ricotta,
mashed with a fork
15 g (½ oz) sugar
200 ml (7 fl oz) crème fraîche
segments from three clementines
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
2. Mix the sugar with the eggs without letting the mixture turn pale.
3. In a large bowl, mix the marmalade and clementine peel into the cream, then incorporate the sugar and egg mixture. Add the baking powder, flour and eau de
vie, and mix well.
4. Pour the mixture into a non-stick 20 x 30 cm flan tin and bake for 25 minutes. Cool in the tin then unmould.
5. Just before serving, gently whisk the brocciu with the sugar and the crème fraîche. Cut the clementine tart into 8–10 pieces. Spoon the brocciu chantilly cream
on top and add a few clementine segments. Serve straight away.
This dessert is traditionally made with sheep’s cream, but it’s increasingly rare to find this. Instead, you can use 250 g (9 oz) crème fraîche and 250 g (9 oz) fresh brocciu cheese or ricotta. This is neither the cousin nor the brother of fiadone, but it looks just like it.