Corsicans derive essential oils from some of the island's aromatic herbs.
France’s island province of Corse, also called Corsica, floats in the Mediterranean Sea off the southeastern coast of the French mainland. With a population of more than 250,000 in an area of about 3,400 square miles, much of the island is mountainous and sparsely populated. The flowers among the dense maquis—shrubbery blanketing more than half the island—produce a fragrance that wafts far out to sea and has earned Corsica its appellation as “the scented isle.” For centuries, the wild maquis provided hideouts for bandits, and the province’s history is rich with adventure and mystery.
French is the official language, but most Corsicans also speak a dialect akin to Italian, and the island’s cuisine and conversation reflect its varied heritage. Fruit, cork, cigarettes, wine and cheese are the main exports, and good connections by air and sea make it an especially appealing tourist destination.
I’d read stories about Corsica’s maquis, but the mixture of fragrances that greeted me when I arrived overwhelmed me. Corsica’s scented maquis reaches from the sea up to 3,000 feet. In appearance, it resembles California’s chaparral, but the similarity ends there. Even after one visit, if you put me on an airplane blindfolded and took me to Corsica, I would know with utter certainty that I stood in the maquis.
Imagine standing on a fragrant hillside surrounded by eucalyptus, juniper, laurel, rosemary, highly scented shrubs of the rock rose family, heather, myrtle, sage, mint, thyme and lavender. Add to that more than a dozen aromatic flowers that grow only in Corsica and you’ll get an idea of the heady, clean aroma that infuses the island’s air. More than 2,500 species of wildflowers grow in Corsica, and about 250 of these are native to the island. Along with the familiar flowers and shrubs, I also encountered lentisk trees (Pistacia lentiscus), which smell like very strong sandalwood, and sticky, yellow-flowered inula (Inula graveolens).
Corsicans enjoy a bounty of aromatic herbs seen nowhere else and derive unique, valuable essential oils, as well as flavorings for their cuisine, from these plants. Corsican chefs frequently use a native herb, nepeta (Calamintha nepeta), which I’ve never encountered in food anywhere else, to season their dishes. Nepeta, variously called Corsican marjoram, lesser calamint, early mint, nepitella, mountain balsam or mountain mint, was popular as a medicinal herb in the Middle Ages. Today, mountain-goat herders coat their cheese with it.
Native herbs permeate this French territory’s cuisine and flavor the local cheeses, wines, beers and honeys. The strict French A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) laws that govern the production of wine and cheese apply even to Corsican honey (the only A.O.C.-controlled honey in France). The A.O.C. divides honey into three classes depending on when and where the bees forage. Four of the six Corsican honeys originate in the maquis, which shows the pervasive influence of the maquis in Corsican food.
After a calm ferry ride from Nice, photographer Thomas Walsh met me in the northern port town of Bastia. From the hot beach town, sweltering on a clear, sunny day in late September, we drove inland and uphill along winding mountain lanes.
Goats, donkeys and sows with piglets in tow roamed the narrow roads, so our progress was slow. The road climbed into the chestnut forests of the Castagniccia, where we embarked on a hike through the maquis. Finally we arrived in the tiny village of Piedicroce (about 200 inhabitants), which houses Le Refuge, the only hotel in this valley.
Our hearty country meal at this family-owned-and-operated inn began with a tasty locally made salami served with bread and pickles. Local pigs range freely in the maquis and gorge themselves on chestnuts, which gives the local salami its unique flavor. The main course, rich chestnut dumplings, came with a pork sauce.
More than 2,500 species of wildflowers grow on the island of Corsica.
Early the next morning, Walsh and I drove to Kyrn Flor to watch Antoine Valentini, a native Corsican, distill essential oils from rosemary.
“We work for homeopathy labs in France, Belgium, Germany and occasionally Canada or the United States,” Valentini said. “We distill oils from 10 to 12 plants. Most often we get oils from rosemary, myrtle, inula and eucalyptus.” Corsican rosemary contains an essential oil called verbenone, which is absent in mainland rosemary and makes Corsican rosemary oil more valuable. “Rosemary is an antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal oil,” he says.
Valentini and his son collect rosemary from their land, which extends up the hillsides to a tiny hut far above.
“I grew up here herding goats and making cheese,” he said. “I prefer goat cheese made in the mountains. You can taste the difference in goat cheese, depending on the herbs and plants that the goats eat.” Due to customs laws, Corsica does not export most of the cheese.
While we watched, Valentini filled an enormous iron vat embedded in concrete with rosemary. He then screwed on an iron lid like a submarine hatch with huge bolts at three sides.
“It’s very old,” said Valentini. “Over 60 years.”
The heated water in the tank produced high-pressure steam that blew through the rosemary and picked up essential oils. It then entered a condensing tank with coils cooled by running water. The steam condensed into a mixture of essential oils and water. Like oil and vinegar, the oils in a collecting funnel float on top of the denser water. Valentini drained the water and ran the oils through several filters to remove any remaining plant bits.
After completing the distillation, Valentini guided us on a tour of his land, where rosemary, inula, nepeta, everlasting (Helichrysum) and germander (Teucrium) grow in wild profusion. Once I learned to recognize the plants, I noticed them frequently alongside the trails that head from Corte up into the surrounding mountains.
From Corte (or Corti) we crawled toward the coast along more hairpin turns and past more donkeys before reaching open roads. As we descended the mountains, we encountered our first traffic signal in days. Once we reached Ajaccio, the provincial capital, a traffic jam halted our progress. From downtown Ajaccio, we headed north toward our hotel, Dolce Vita, which sits directly on the beach.
My first course at the hotel restaurant, chicken brochettes, consisted of rosemary sprigs impaling small, moist chicken nuggets about the size of a quarter. The rosemary complemented the chicken’s sweetness, giving it a greater complexity of flavor. Our white wine, a 2001 Orenga de Gaffory from the Patrimonio A.O.C. in Corsica, had a medium body, fine acidity and lovely fruit, providing a delightful balance to the chicken.
The next course, monkfish in citrus, tantalized my taste buds with its mélange of flavors. The tender white flakes of this local fish fell apart on the fork. The fish’s mild flavor allowed the herb’s aroma to permeate the dish. The chef cooked the delicate fish in thyme, then coated it with whole coriander kernels. Jerusalem artichokes and little sweet onions provided a delicious side course. The delicate-flavored white wine accompanied this fish perfectly.
To cap our splendid meal, our host offered a cheese tray with Corsican cheeses: Corse Vecchiu is a very mild sheep cheese; U Casarone is a sharp, pungent and aromatic goat cheese; and Ye Suerta is less mild than Corse Vecchiu but not as sharp as the U Casarone. Because of export laws, these cheeses can be purchased only in Corsica.
The next morning, we drove into the hills behind town to visit the Alessandri’s distillery, another family-run operation. Pierre Alessandri does the heavy lifting while his wife Pascale Bradesi, a chemistry professor at the University of Corte, analyzes the essential oils with sophisticated instrumentation, including mass spectography and nuclear magnetic resonance. The grandfather, who lives with the family, keeps bees for honey with the flavor of the maquis, which they bear back to the hives on every flight through its pollen-laden flowers.
Today, Pierre distills oils from Inula graveolens, a plant closely related to elecampane, or horseheal, (I. helenium). He first has to find the plant, which only grows wild and not in cultivated fields. He cuts it by hand with a sickle and rushes back to load it into distilling vats because the plant sugars start to break down within three hours of being cut.
“We have to hustle,” he says. For one distillation, Pierre and his assistant need 1,500 to 1,800 pounds of fresh-cut plant material—a lot for two people to cut and carry.
“It’s all biologique too,” he adds. Biologique is the French standard that roughly compares to U.S. organic specifications, but even stricter, controlling the location of potential harvest sites to prevent pollution.
Inula contains about 25 different chemicals in its essential oils. Pierre explains that Corsican plants differ in the north, south, east and west because of different soils and growing conditions. Corsican rosemary contains about 5 percent camphor, but rosemary in Italy and Spain contains up to 30 percent camphor. Corsican rosemary contains 9 percent verbenone, a desirable healing compound that is absent in mainland rosemary. The Alessandris sell oils to Estée Lauder in the United States, as well as to companies in Belgium, Germany and Japan.
Of any European country I’ve traveled to, Corsica leads in its use of fresh herbs and unique products. Its location as a southern island, coupled with the hundreds of native plant species, contribute to this abundance. The high, wild mountains and steep hillsides are home to a profusion of fragrant herbs, which help create the unique varieties of cheeses and honeys. To truly experience Corsican cuisine, you should not only visit one place on the isle, but also sample foods from the Corsican coast and mountains.
Sibylle Hechtel is a freelance writer from Colorado who enjoys exploring flavors of many world cultures. She wrote about the mushrooms of Switzerland in the October/November 2003 issue of The Herb Companion.