I focus on French food at beast, my restaurant in Portland, Ore., but I try to approach it with a slant. The island of Corsica is between France and Italy, drawing influence from both, and I hoped a trip there would broaden my understanding of what French food could be. So this summer, two days after getting married, my husband and I flew to the land of milk, honey and cured pig.
When we landed in Ajaccio, the capital, there was a delicious herbal scent: maquis, a shrub that informs everything in Corsica. If it grows near an olive grove, it changes the way olives taste. It gets into vineyards, and you sense it in the wine. Goats eat it, and you taste it in the cheese made from their milk. Corsicans use it as a spice. They even churn maquis ice cream.
Our first meal in Ajaccio was at Le 20123, the interior of which is a re-creation of the rural village where the owner grew up. The food was excellent: bean soup with thick wheat noodles, lots of charcuteriedry pork salami, potted pâté, coppaand eggplant gratin in a tomato sauce sweetened with strong Corsican honey.
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The next day we took a winding road to Domaine Comte Abbatucci where we tasted Jean-Charles Abbatucci’s Il Cavaliere, a white blend that smells of maquis. We visited his brother’s restaurant, Le Frre where we ate cannelloni with mint, myrtle, and brocciu, a sheep’s-milk cheese prevalent in Corsica.
In Sagone, a coastal town about 12 miles north of Ajaccio, we dined on grilled prawns and langoustine at A Stonda (04.95.28.01.66). We’d heard that Glacier Geronimi had the best ice cream in Corsica, so we tried its noisette sundae and beet sorbet. Then it was on to Piana to take in the stunning view on the terrace of Hôtel Les Roches Rouges and to Cargèse, where we had the best charcuterie of the trip at picerie Leca (04.95.26.42.20). We drove south through Sartène, home to a medieval citadel, en route to Figari, near the island’s southern tip. There, we stayed at the beautiful Ferme Auberge Pozzo di Mastri and visited Clos Canarelli, one of Corsica’s top wine producers, where Yves Canarelli makes a rosé that might be the best in France.
Up a nearby mountain, at Les Bergeries de Piscia corse-chambres-hotes.com) we ate a cheese pastry rich with egg, then moved on to braised boar, which we learned had been shot by Canarelli’s teenage son, an avid hunter. Yves asked us to join him for dinner, and I offered to cook. I seasoned another leg of boar with olive oil, fig mustard and honey. When I served it over a salad of purslane, which grows wild on Yves’ property, he was delighted; he hadn’t realized it could be eaten.
We moved up the coast to Aghione, where we met Anne from Domaine de Marquiliani (04.95.56.64.02), a winery that also makes a line of prized olive oils. Anne took us on a leisurely tour of the grounds and served us an incredible chard tart. We tasted her oil and sipped her rosé as she brought more and more food: radishes, chickpea spread, tapenade, cheese drizzled with olive oil.
I was reluctant to move on but excited to tour Corsica’s cape. In Erbalunga, we stayed at the Castel Brando then drove around the island’s northernmost tip, stopping in Calvi to visit Domaine Maestracci where the wines were almost as tasty as the figs that grew along the road. We moved on to Saint-Florent for a dinner of raw fish with lemon and olive oil at Auberge du Pcheur
I left Corsica full of ideas for Beast’s menu: wild boar, honey in savory dishes, the anchovy aioli we had at Pasquale Paoli Pasquale Paoli in L’Île Rousse. I’d wanted to expand my idea of what “French food” means but discovered that Corsican food is just thatnot French, not Italian, just Corsican. It’s a cuisine all its own, born out of what perfumes the air and the earth.