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The Wild Maquis of Corsica

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Antoine Valentini prepares a batch of rosemary for distillation at Kyrn Flor, his bed and breakfast and essential oil distillery in Corte.
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Morning sun bathes the craggy peaks of Corsica.
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Ripening chestnuts cling to a tree framing this Corsican mountain village.
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There is no question, judging by the finest examples, that Corsica possesses fine wine- producing potential.
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A selection of honeys is just one of the attractions at the Corsican products specialty shop, U Stazzu, in Ajaccio.
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Ripening chestnuts cling to a tree framing this Corsican mountain village.
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Ripening chestnuts cling to a tree framing this Corsican mountain village.

Recipes
Monkfish Oven-Roasted in Herbs with Marinated Jerusalem Artichokes
Corsican Chicken with Rosemary and Honey of the Maquis

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
).

Herbal Countryside

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.

Premier Essential Oil

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.

Costal Corsica

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.

Detailed Distillation

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.

Here and Back Again

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.

Published on Apr 1, 2004

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