Corsica’s native cheese culture is as unique as the people and the landscape, wild and spare, and like many places that are geographically isolated, both deceptively simple and deeply complex. The sheep and goats graze on the maquis, the wild herbs and brush that cover the rocky highlands. In the lowlands, they feast on the famous Corsican chestnuts. This unique diet, and the salty warm Mediterranean air, gives every lovely wheel and basket of cheese from Corsica a terroir unique in the world.
Cheeses from Corsica
Brocciu Passu, Corsica’s Mother Cheese
The brocciu passu is Corsica’s unofficial national cheese, an AOC-labelled fresh cheese with a rich mouthfeel, a hint of nuttiness from chestnuts, and the tang of traditional chevre. Villages use their own unique mix of goat and sheep’s milk for this fresh cheese. It is an integral part of many traditional Corsican recipes.
Brocciu is made in many small villages daily, and sold with the imprint of the small basket in which it drains. It is similar to fresh ricotta, but denser, made from a mixture of whey and whole goat and sheep’s milk, which gives it a richness along with a tiny acidic bite. It is used both for fresh eating and as an ingredient in cooking. Both savory and sweet dishes like cake use brocciu. Without lactose, and with a rich, mild flavor, brocciu is the most popular Corsican cheese. A slice of fresh Fiadone Corse, made from brocciu, with native honey is a popular breakfast and afternoon treat.
Tomme de Brebis and Tomme de Chevre
Tommes made from sheep and goat’s milk also have flavors unique to Corsican villages, as they reflect the terroir of the surrounding land with more vigor than in national cheeses that are being produced from collective farms. From easy-to-like fresh to complicated aged, the local tomme is unforgettable.
Aged cheeses include natural rind tomme de brebis and tomme de chevre. Flavored with the vegetation from the island, they develop tangy strong flavors as they age, and are naturally paired with fruit spreads and honey. The frugal Corsicans also take scraps of their oldest tommes and let them ferment in a jar to make a piquant cheese called puzza that tastes like a broken heart; it’s a fermented cheese paste with strong regional terroir.
Fleur de Maquis
Among Corsican sheep milk’s cheeses, we cannot forget “Fleur de Maquis”. We had the chance to discover it at a recent cheese event in New York, and it is truly delightful. Its rind is covered with those wild herbs (maquis), so characteristic of Corsica. The cheese will take you back to memories of these hot summer afternoons, when the sun brings out all the strong smells of the wild herbs in the mountainous countryside.
The long tradition of Corsican charcuterie comes from the wild boar endemic to the island crossbreeding with farmstead pigs, and a diet rich in chestnuts. Regional cuisine also has a tradition of cooking roast boar and other wild meats slowly in deep, rich sauces, and roasting young kid and lamb in the spring, for Easter.
Corsica’s Wild History
Throughout Corsica’s history, the island has been a crossroads. Its location in the Western Mediterranean gave it strategic value for the empire builders, and the beautiful natural harbors made the island a favorite of pirates, sailors, and troublemakers. The island was conquered, sold, bartered, like an Ace in a hand of international cards, and during all of this contentious fighting and conquering, the people developed a fierce love for their native land, and a love of independence that persists to this day.
In 1584, while being ruled by the Genoese, an edict to farmers and landowners was given. They had to plant four trees every year–an olive, a fig, a mulberry, and a chestnut. Over time, the tradition of planting these trees grew. The flavors of chestnut and fig, along with the wild rosemary and other herbs called maquis that grow along the granite spine of the highlands, provides Corsica with a unique terroir in their cheese.
Corsica has an ecosystem that is as self-contained and independent as the national spirit. The highlands stretch the length of the country, and numerous fresh water rivers move from the granite peaks down into the fertile coastal lands. The land is beautiful, but fierce; shepherds run flocks of goats and sheep along the rocky interior and down to the rich coastal plains, where a diet of wild herbs, mountain grasses and fat chestnuts give their milk a subtle flavor unique in the world.
Corsican Cuisine, and a Cheesecake Recipe
The Corsicans use their unique landscape to produce the finest quality cheeses, and then use those cheeses in dishes that are simple to the point of spare. The plain ingredients reflect both the frugal nature of the Corsicans, and the quality of their cheese and meat–with simple taste and recipes, the terroir of the cheese is allowed center-stage.
Many Corsican cakes and dishes use chestnut flour instead of wheat flour, which gives a warm, nutty flavor to dishes. Polenta is made from chestnut flour, and pasta for sweet ravioli can be made with chestnut flour. The best Corsican foods are the ones the family prepares–simple ingredients, classic flavors, and excellent nutrition. The Fiadone Corse is a simple cheesecake without crust that is served cold, in squares, and traces are usually found on the hands of small boys running home through the villages from grandmother’s house. If you’re not in Corsica, and can’t get fresh brocciu, you can substitute whole milk ricotta or, if possible, use whole goat’s milk ricotta.