My husband and I spent 10 days on the island of Corsica this fall and I felt compelled to post a trip report as there is so little information here or elsewhere, and even less information that is current. My husband had wanted to visit this French region for several years and early this summer Air France offered a seat sale to Corsica and we didn't hesitate.
September is a beautiful month to go, (as is May and June) as the heavy influx of tourists that flock there in July and August has left. We were there the last week of September and the first week of October (2016) and enjoyed hot sunny (26 C) weather, cool nights. One word of warning though, many restaurants, hotels and chambre d' hôtes close for the season, some as early as October 1st, and by November many will be shuttered for the winter season excepting hotels in main cities. That said, most were open until mid or late October and we missed only two restaurants that we were interested in due to their end of season closing.
As this was our first visit to Corsica, we wanted to travel the island and see as much as was reasonably possible within 10 days. In addition to experiencing the spectacular natural beauty of the region, our interest was to discover the local food and wine. The many beautiful beaches along the coastline and the G20 (Grande Randonnée 20) hiking path of 200 km which crosses from north-west to south-east through the mountains offer astonishing outdoor picnic opportunities, not to mention a chance to burn off some calories after consuming all the fine charcuterie and cheese.
There is fresh fish and seafood including langoustine and moules to be had especially along the coast and in restaurants catering to tourists but the traditional Corsican diet developed from the mountains rather than the sea and is centered on meat, charcuterie and sheep and goat cheese. It is a paradise for charcuterie lovers as the artisanal charcuterie from black pig and wild boar that feed on the chestnuts and acorns are made into some of the finest product that will keep you wanting to come back.
Brebis and chevre cheeses both fresh and aged are made artisanally and the famous brocciu made from sheep/goat (and sometimes cow in the summer) is the only AOP cheese in Corsica. The brocciu is similar to Italian ricotta, and if you are a fan of sheep ricotta, as I am, then brocciu is something you will want to have, eaten fresh, salé, or sweetened made into fiadone, a simple cheesecake flavoured with citron or cedrat. Pork, veal, lamb, kid and wild boar are typically braised or roasted and Mediterranean vegetables form traditional dishes and we found the servings generous.
There seems to be wood smoke everywhere with the aroma of outdoor meat and chestnuts roasting. However, the maquis, the wild herbal and floral shrubby undergrowth of the hills that includes wild fennel, rosemary, myrtle, nepita and juniper is used as a fresh and dried herb mixture to season many of their dishes and may be the quintessential scent and flavour of Corsica. Sheep and goats graze on the maquis and this imparts a uniquely Corsican flavour to the meat and milk.
There are nine AOP wine regions in Corsica, so wherever you are there are local wines to drink, mostly made from native varietals. The three important varietals are niellucci, a red grape similar to Tuscan sangiovese, which imparts spiciness; sciaccarellu, sometimes referred to as Corsican pinot noir and often blended with niellucci. Vermentino is the usual white varietal. Most often the wines are fermented and aged in steel or concrete to preserve freshness. We found them to be easy to love, finding the reds to be fruity, spicy and in general fresh tasting and medium bodied. Some of the Patrimonios were very full bodied. There are liquors made from cedrat, clementine and myrtle and Corsican hospitality showed often after dinner when we were offered a Mirto, a digestive made from myrtle berries. Cap Corse in the north makes a sweet dessert wine, Muscat du Cap Corse.
There is fantastic AOP honey derived from the maquis and also from chestnut. These are rich dark honeys that taste of the terroir and we brought back home many jars. Chestnut flour is used to make breads, cakes and biscuits and the nut is used in beer making (Pietra beer), ice cream, candies and every form of pâtisserie. There is excellent artisanal ice cream everywhere and we enjoyed the Corsican flavours of myrtle, clementine, chestnut, cedrat and nepita which is a native herb tasting of mint and savory.
Our trip begins and ends in the capital of Ajaccio, but our intended itinerary from Ajaccio changed once we realized that the Tour de Corse car rally was scheduled from September 29 - October 2 and we would be driving right into it. There are not many roads in Corsica and we were not sure if roads would be closed to accommodate the car races or if there would be traffic issues. We intended to drive the western coastal road from Ajaccio to Piana before turning inland and north to Calvi, but instead took the main territorial road through the center northward.
AJACCIO - Although it is the largest city in Corsica, it is really a small town and easily walkable if you stay in the center rather than at the hotels along the beach strip. The city wraps around the Golfe d'Ajaccio with a pretty port, a backdrop of hills and a panoramic road along the north shore with sandy beaches. Starting in Ajaccio is a great introduction to Corsican cuisine as there is a daily outdoor morning market at Place Foch (daily except Mondays) where you can sample and buy direct from many producers. Ajaccio has a lively outdoor café social life, specialty shops and boutiques, and some very good neo bistrots. We spent three nights here at The Hotel Napoleon, an older 3 star hotel on a quiet side street, with an excellent location just a few minutes from the market, port, restaurants and museums. The staff was very helpful and the rooms although small were updated, and they have a secure car garage next door which we needed for our rental car on the third day. We would happily return here.
Marché Foch - Instead of taking breakfast at the hotel we went straight to the outdoor market every day where we bought slices of Tomme de Corse brebis cheese from the producer/farmer. He had the same cheese at one month, three months, nine months and longer and we tasted its evolution. When young it was semi soft and already full flavoured. At a year it was golden, salty and had a parmesan texture. There were excellent sweet beignets de brocciu, also pastries stuffed with chard, or onions or pistachios, artisanal breads, fruits and vegetables and abundant charcuterie, including lonzu, coppa, salsicca, saluma, prisuttu/prizutto - delicious cured ham that is left to dry for one or two years, much like proscuitto and figatellu, a cured and smoked black pig and liver sausage that are formed into thin U-shaped ropes that were so good. We bought our favourite figatellu from the market stand "U Cintu". Take a good look before you buy - there are two types of figatellu, one a very thin rope and another thicker. We preferred the thicker one, especially if it was still soft and pliable. The pigs feed on chestnuts and acorns and give the cured meats a complex, nutty flavour. Lots of samples and you can buy small quantities for immediate consumption.
You can also buy the brocciu cheese, wrapped in paper and vacuum packed, which we did on our final day leaving Ajaccio along with charcuterie and bread. (It was explained to us that the brocciu which is made from November to May/June is different from the same cheese made from Spring to Fall (sometimes called brousse,brossu, brossio) because in the winter the ewes and does are feeding their lambs and kids and their lactoserum has a different quality from the summer milk when they have finished feeding their young. Locals told me they like to eat the richer winter brocciu sweetened).
On a side street off the market place, there is Boulangerie Foch where we had our morning café creme at one of the outside tables.
Grand Café Napoleon - a couple of blocks from our hotel at 10 Cours Napoleon, this was the terrace where we stopped for an afternoon espresso or a pre-dinner apéro, usually a glass of local rosé. It provides much entertaining people watching and is the oldest joint in town. There is a vintage Parisian brasserie in the back worth a look.
Produits Corse A Casetta - close to the market (Cours Napoleon & Cours Grandal) a small terrace for snacks and simple plats featuring Corsican charcuterie, cheese, wine. Inside there are refrigerated hams and cheese for sale, wines and preserves.
U Stazzu - 1 rue Bonaparte, boutique store of celebrated charcuterie master Paul Marcaggi whose family raises black pigs. High prices, exceptional quality. Also premium Corsican products, honey, preserves and canestrelli.
Gusto Gourmandise Glace & Epicerie Fine - artisanal ice creams, including vegetable and herbal flavours, near the Musée Bonaparte, with outdoor seating.
A Neptia - 4 rue San-Lazaro; a small modern bistro with a single daily three course market-driven menu offering two choices for the mains. Lunch daily; dinner Thursday-Sunday. Outstanding service and food. We had lunch here on the terrace, 24 E for 2 courses, 29 E for three courses. Entrées- rouget over risotto with créme de cèpes and a lamb confit with celeriac purée. Mains of local rockfish over red cabbage confit with a raviole de crab, potiron purée and another of duck breast with haricot verts, fagiloli beans, celeriac. We shared an excellent lemon tart with a meringue lid and pistachio ice cream. Wine 29E for a bottle of Clos d'Alzeto rosé (Ajaccio)
A Mercendella Citadina - 19 rue Conventionnel-Chiappe; a small modern-traditional bistro with an original daily menu, indoor room featuring stone walls and outdoor seating on a pedestrian street. This was a dinner reservation and we had some difficulty finding the location until a local woman of a certain age asked if she could help and she escorted us to the restaurant. She was a wonderful ambassador for Ajaccio, providing us with all sorts of information and she will be long remembered. She translated the bistro name as meaning a "feast" , and it was indeed.
We had two courses each with several choices, no dessert, for 29 E. Amuse of tuna confit on croutes to start followed by entrées of thickly cut prizuttu ham and zucchini beignets and another of flan St. Jacques with sautéed foie gras, beetroot purée, arugula and crispy tuile. For mains.a rosy veal filet with a perfect jus on a bed of white polenta and caramelised cherry tomatoes - wonderful; and another of a succulent duck breast over sweet potato purée with hazelnuts and red fruits. 25 E for an excellent bio Culombu AOP rouge (Calvi)
Auberge U Licettu - Plaine de Cuttoli, Mezzaria, 13 km from our hotel, up in the hills above Ajaccio. On our third morning, we picked up our rental car in Ajaccio and drove inland to this old villa overlooking the gulf for lunch. It is a family owned villa with some guest rooms and a well-known dining room serving traditional homemade Corsican specialties. The mother and her daughter serve in the dining room and they speak no English, so if you can speak a little French or Italian you will have a richer experience as they are most willing to engage in conversation. If not, they have an English translation menu, so then just smile and nod, as the food is worth the trek here.
The rustic dining room features a large wood-burning fireplace which they called la cheminée, and we could smell the joint of porcelet cooking on the fire as soon as we came through the door. They offer a 42 E Corsican menu for lunch or dinner which includes five courses, AOC wine from Ajaccio, either rosé or rouge, and café or lemon verbena tisane. As we were the only guests for lunch that day, and it was a gloriously sunny afternoon, they set up our table under a canopy on their immense belvedere overlooking the garden and pool area. They offered us an aperitif of fait maison cedrat to start, which was the only extra cost to the menu. When we saw the enormous glass bottle containing several whole cedrats within, we immediately said oui s.v.p. Good bread, olives, a carafe d'eau were set out and they brought the rosé wine in a pottery jug. A terrine of liver paté and another of brawn/headcheese were brought, both fait maison from the porcelet and both were exceptional. A plate of their 12 month Corsican ham - prizuttu followed the terrines, and Madame came to inspect our plates and when she saw that I had left some of the prized fat behind, she told me with kind but firm instructions to eat the fat, don't leave it on your plate. Next came the most delicious zucchini beignets, redolent with fresh mint, perfectly hot and crispy. The tender and smoky porcelet was portioned and served with its crispy skin, and side dishes of fagioli beans and silky cannellonis pasta stuffed with broccio cheese and nepita in a tomato sauce accompanied the porcelet. Several desserts were offered including cheese and ice creams - we chose the chestnut flan, which was cold and dreamy, and a refreshing frozen sorbet gâteau, composed of fruit sorbets with a brûlée meringue crust.
Le Papacionu - 15 rue Saint-Charles, Corsican pizza - this place is wildly poplular and unless you have a reservation, you will have to wait until 10:30 or 11:00 pm to snag a seat at one of their outdoor tables. If you are a pizza purist, as I am, who believes pizza means a Napoletana - style Margherita, well then this place may change your mind, or at least open your mind to other renditions. Heavy on the toppings, all top quality Italian and Corsican, and a crispy crust that has some heft to support all the goodness. They are semi-lune pies and it was hard to choose, but we took the La Sputinetta with thickly sliced Corsican Tomme, pancetta and arugula and La Foie Gras that had smoked duck breast, generous slices of foie gras, mache, cherry tomatoes and a confiture of figs. The servers were efficient and congenial. After many years of success in Ajaccio, they have recently opened another location in Paris, called Pizzeria Corse, 7 rue Cadet, 9th arr.