Panorama of Castagniccia: The Genoese rule radically changed the landscape of large parts of the island, introducing the chestnut on a large scale.
The geographical conformation of Corsica, with its eastern coast (the closest to the continent) low, riddled with malaria and impossible to defend, forced the population to settle in the mountains of the interior. The agricultural products exported in Antiquity reflect this situation: they were sheep, plus honey, wax and tar, produced by the vast forests . In addition, it was known for its cheap wines, exported to Rome. The concentration of settlement inland, also typical also of neighbouring Sardinia, lasted until the beginning of the 20th century; in 1911, 73,000 people lived in the area between 700 and 1,000 m. In the Middle Ages, and more precisely in the 12th century, when Pisa was the hegemonic power of Corsica, the important immigration from Tuscany, together with the Tuscan language, culture and cuisine peculiar to this Italian region, brought to the island, in addition to the presence of man, man, history, history, history, environment, civilization, history, history, heritage. Later, when it was Genoa’s turn to dominate the island, a major change in the population’s eating habits took place; the Genoese governor, by a decree signed on 28 August 1548, ordered each owner and tenant to plant at least one chestnut, one mulberry, one olive and one fig tree per year, at a rate of three lire per tree not planted. This decree was intended to give the population a means of subsistence. Still at the beginning of the 17th century, the Genoese administrator Baliano wrote that the Corsicans lived on barley bread, vegetables and pure water. Other decrees were issued along the same lines, such as that of 1619, which ordered that 10 chestnut trees were to be planted each year by each owner and tenant. Over time, the landscape of entire regions of the island changed radically, with the almost total substitution of cereals by chestnuts; one region, Castagniccia, south of Bastia, takes its name from the chestnut trees (castágnus). By the 18th century, chestnuts had almost completely replaced cereals. Above all, chestnut groves radically changed the diet of the islanders, saving them from recurrent famines. The Corsican historian Jakob Von Wittelieb can write that in the 1730s, travellers to the island brought with them a flask filled with wine and a pocket containing chestnut bread or roasted chestnuts.
An old Corsican proverb from the Upper Niolo states: Pane di legnu e vinu di petra (Pane di legnu e vinu di petra), explaining well the central place occupied by the chestnut in the Corsican diet (and the frugality of Corsican mountaineers, obliged to drink water instead of wine).
Chestnut picking in Castagniccia (end of the 19th century)
During the independence of Corsica before the French annexation, Pasquale Paoli tried to enrich the diet of his compatriots by encouraging the cultivation of potatoes, and his political opponents ridiculed him by calling him Il Generale delle patate. The French annexation of 1768 first brought a change in this situation; in an effort to enslave the rebels, the French army proceeded to cut down many chestnut forests, and this policy also continued during the first years of peace, with Paris favouring cereals over chestnuts as a staple food. But after a while, the felling of chestnut trees came to an end, so that until the beginning of the 20th century, chestnuts in the form of pancakes, bread or porridge remained the staple food of a large part of the Corsican population.
In addition to chestnuts, at the end of 700, the Corsican diet is based on cereals (mainly wheat and rye), pulses and charcuterie. Anyway, there were also exceptions: according to a testimony of 1775, the owners of the vineyards of Cap Corse used that year the proceeds from the sale of their wine to buy Italian pasta, goat and pig meat and cod, and with these foodstuffs they ate all year round. The poor of the same region, they worked in the vineyards in spring, but in winter they ate wild herb soup. Some of them, during the summer, went to harvest maize in the Aleria palustrine plain, but often afterwards they lost their lives or health Generally, at the end of the 18th century, food was therefore eminently vegetable: the mayor of Stazzona, in Castagniccia, answering a questionnaire on life drawn up by the French authorities (“Questionnaire of Year X”), mentions as the basis of the village’s chestnut diet, of which he cites 12 different ways of treating it. He also writes that from November to June only chestnut bread was eaten and that the villagers had vegetable gardens devoted exclusively to their food. The monotony of this diet was broken by eating trout and eels.
After the beginning of the 20th century, the self-sufficient village economy based mainly on chestnuts and other locally produced foods such as pork disappeared due to several factors ; above all, the eradication of malaria after the Second World War made life possible on the east coast and accelerated the depopulation of the interior. In 1990, only 20,000 people still lived in the area between 700 and 1,000 m above sea level. These changes also led to the abandonment of traditional food production; whereas in 1796, 35,442 hectares were occupied by chestnut groves, in 1977, chestnut forests still covered 25,000 hectares, but only 3,067 hectares were exploited; the rest was left to animals. This situation could only be partially reversed due to the demand for local food from the many tourists visiting the island and the establishment of higher quality standards in food production, also due to the PDO and AOC designations of origin.
Chestnut flour is the main ingredient of the pulenta
Large-scale chestnut cultivation was introduced into Corsica under Genoese rule. Rich in calories, the fruit was picked (without gloves) and dried, then placed on a wooden grill (Corsica: un grata) above a fire (Corsica: u fucone) for a month: this fire, placed on a dry clay base 1 m2 wide and 20 cm thick, also smokes the charcuterie and heats the house. Afterwards, they are crushed to produce chestnut flour, which gives an incomparable smoky taste to this operation. The unplucked chestnuts are eaten by the pigs that feed in the forest. They are also fed with chestnut flour so that their meat acquires a characteristic taste. Used for the preparation of polenta (Corsican: pulenta, pulenda) and cakes, this flour was the staple food of Corsica. The importance of chestnuts in Corsican life can be explained by the fact that during a traditional wedding meal in Castagniccia in the 19th century, no less than 22 different dishes were prepared with chestnuts. Today, chestnut flour is a French AOC and a European PDO, under the name “Farine de châtaigne corse-Farina castagnina corsa”.
Corsican chestnuts of Evisa
At the end of the 20th century, 85% (1200 t) of the chestnuts harvested in Corsica were processed into flour, a unique case among all the French departments. The 300 t of flour thus obtained were consumed almost entirely in Corsica, a small part was exported to mainland France and bought by the Corsicans in the diaspora.
The chestnut and its products are at the heart of two annual fairs in Corsica: A Fiera di a Castagna in Bocognano, which takes place at the beginning of December, and the Chestnut Festival in Évisa at the end of November.
Exhibition of Corsican cheeses
The traditional Corsican cheeses are made exclusively with ewe’s or goat’s milk. In the mid-1980s, the island had 150 000 sheep and 20 000 goats, the most important of which was Brocciu, a whey cheese close to ricotta (but without lactose), made largely from sheep’s milk, sometimes goat’s milk, which can be eaten fresh or aged and is used in many Corsican dishes, from first course to cake. Brocciu is the only Corsican cheese to have received the AOC designation to date. Other notable cheeses include niulincu (from Niolo, the heartland of Corsica), balaninu (from Balagne, north-western region), bastilicacciu and sartinesu (from Bastelica and Sartène, respectively, in southern Corsica) and cuscionu from Zicavo, also in the south. Casgiu merzu (‘rotten cheese’) is a cheese containing insect larvae similar to Sardinian casu marzu. Corsican cheese producers meet every year at the beginning of May at the cheese fair (A Fiera di U Casgiu) in Venaco.
Corsican charcuterie, together with bayonne ham, is considered to be one of the best charcuteries in the world because of the traditional production processes and the fact that Corsican pigs (porcu nustrale), which live partly in the wild, are crossed with wild boars (Corsican: Cingale, Singhjari) and are mainly fed on chestnuts and chestnut flour. Each farming family has one or two pigs; these are castrated (sterilized if female) at the age of two months. When slaughtered, they are about 14 months old and weigh 200 kg. This usually happens in December, before Christmas. The carcass is hung upside down to allow the blood to drain, and is fully processed. On the same day as slaughter, dishes such as figatelli, blood sausage and ventra (similar to the Italian sanguinaccio) are prepared. Intensive farming takes place in the mountains, where the animals cannot disturb the crops. Especially in the regions of Castagniccia, Bastelica, Alto Taravo and Quenza, a shepherd (u purcaghju) watches over the pigs, who are free to search the woods for chestnuts, roots and small animals, but in the evening they are given kitchen scraps and rotten apples. Typical sausages are prisuttu (ham), panzetta (bacon), lonzu, one of the four pork fillets, peppered, salted and smoked, figatellu (pork liver sausage) and capicollu (also called coppa). The figatellu is smoked on top of the fucone for three or four days and then left to dry: it can be eaten grilled or roasted. Prisuttu, coppa and lonzu acquired the AOC designation in 2012.
Following the tradition of mainland France, in Corsica several pâtés (pastizzi) are prepared from pork liver (pastizzu di fecatu di maiale), thrush (pastizzu di torduli), hare (pastizzu di levru), common blackbird (pastizzu di meruli, now banned), wild boar (pastizzu di singhjari).
Corsican olive oil is mainly produced in the hills of Balagne, the north-western region of the island, where a quarter of the island’s olive trees are located. Another important region for oil is the Alta Rocca, around Bonifacio: here, in the village of Santa Lucia di Tallano, the Festa di l’olio novu, an annual fair dedicated to the production of the new oil, is celebrated every year. In total, olive groves cover 2,000 hectares in Corsica, divided among 300 producers. The olives, most of them black, are not picked by hand; they fall onto nets under old trees, while those from young trees are picked mechanically. Since 2004, Corsican oil has been an AOC product, under the name ‘Huile d’olive de Corse-Oliu di Corse’, and has successively obtained the European PDO designation.
In Corsica, the olive tree is threatened by Xylella fastidiosa, a disease spread by tiny sap-sucking insects known as leafhoppers, which in April 2018 spread from Italy.
Olive oil of Corsica A.O.P.
Wine was introduced in Corsica by the Greeks. The Romans developed the wine industry and imported wines from Corsica. The island’s wines were highly appreciated during the Renaissance: in the Vatican Map Gallery, which represents the regions of Italy and the surrounding islands, the 16th century Italian cosmographer Ignazio Danti wrote above the map of Corsica: “Corsica has received four major gifts from nature: its horses, its dogs, its proud and courageous men, its most generous wines, which hold the princes in high esteem”! In 1887, the island’s vineyards were hit by phylloxera. A dramatic change in the island’s viticulture occurred in the early 1960s. At that time, about 20,000 pieds-noirs (French settlers from Algeria) had to leave North Africa and resettle in Corsica. The French state helped them with huge capitals, which were used among other things to plant large vineyards on the east coast (which had been cleared of malaria a few years earlier), introducing southern varieties that changed the profile of Corsican wines. The vineyard area increased from 4,700 hectares in 1959 to 28,000 hectares in 1978. Wine production rose from 284,000 hectolitres in 1966 to 2 million hectolitres in 1978. This expansion resulted in massive overproduction, which was combated by the state by uprooting a large part of the vines. This reduced the area in 1993 to 7,609 hectares, including 1,994 hectares of AOC wines, and production to 410,581 hectolitres, including 76,512 hectares of AOC wines.