The Wild Maquis of Corsica

Corsicans derive essential oils from some of the island's aromatic herbs.

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

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.

3/14/2015 9:30:00 AM

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