Where to stay
Demeure Loredana On the fringe of the resort town of Saint-Florent, this is a hideaway for the rich and famous: think George Clooney et al. The atmosphere is convivial rather than flashy and the bay views from the well-appointed rooms are spectacular. Tailored rather than buffet breakfasts are a bonus. Doubles from £170. Promenade Vincenti, 20217 Saint-Florent, 00 33 4 95 37 22 22, demeureloredana.com
Hôtel Castel Brando Friendly family hotel, a short drive from Bastia. Individual rooms have their own mini-libraries where guests can exchange books. It’s the wrong side of town for the airport, but ideal for exploring Cap Corse. Doubles from £75. Erbalunga, 20222 Brando, 00 33 4 95 30 10 30, castelbrando.com
Hôtel Le Magnolia Offering top value, this belle epoque hotel is in the centre of Calvi, within walking distance of the shops, harbour and citadel (handy after a night at Chez Tao). Rooms are newly redecorated and there’s a pretty garden, too. Doubles from £60. Rue Alsace Lorraine, 20260 Calvi, 00 33 4 95 65 19 16, hotel-le-magnolia.com
Hôtel La Villa Overlooking Calvi’s citadel, this hotel has all the trappings of a chic Relais & Châteaux: modern, minimalist design meets no fewer than five pools. The bar makes great cocktails
(do try the L’Île-Rousse), but what sets it apart is the young and cool staff. Breakfasts are great too. Don’t forget to try the canistrelli biscuits – the best in Corsica. Doubles from £390. Chemin Notre Dame de
la Serra, 20260 Calvi, 00 33 4 95 65 10 10, hotel-lavilla.com
La Signoria There are rooms, suites and a tree-house made of chestnut wood at this dramatic Balagne location on a one-time Genoese estate. Equipped with a spa and a guest-only beach (what else?) it’s privacy at a price. Doubles from £292. Route de la Forêt Bonifato, 20260 Calvi, 00 33 4 95 65 93 00, hotel-la-signoria.com
The French island of Corsica lies between the Côte d’Azur and Italy’s Sardinia. The lesser-known northwestern region of Balagne encompasses a vast swathe that takes in key towns and villages including Calvi, L’Île-Rousse and Sant’Antonino. Time is 1 hour ahead of GMT. Currency is the euro (EUR). Flight time from London to Calvi is 2 hours and 15 minutes. The city of Bastia is less than a 2-hour drive away; flights there from London take 2 hours and 20 minutes. Average high temperature in July is 30C and average low is 19C.
Air Corsica offers regular flights from London Stansted to Calvi’s St Catherine Airport and Poretta Aiport in Bastia. aircorsica.com
easyJet has seasonal, weekly flights from London Gatwick to Bastia and Ajaccio Napoleon Bonaparte Airport, further south. easyjet.com
Car rental is recommended, as public transport links are sparse on this sleepy island, and cab costs can rack up. hertz.co.uk
Le Train Corse, a local railway service linking L’Île-Rousse and Calvi, and Calvi and Bastia, is ideal for a scenic, lazy outing. train-corse.com
Visit Corsica is the official tourist board and its website is packed with useful information, including videos and an event calendar, to help you make the most out of your visit. visit-corsica.com
Calvi-Balagne Tourist Office covers Corsica’s northwestern villages and towns and is the official regional tourist board. balagne-corsica.com
Granite Island by Dorothy Carrington (Penguin Classics, £9.99), published in 1971, is a must-read both for its prose and for its vivid insight into the real Corsica. Having spent half her life on the island, Carrington characterises the individualistic nature of it with aplomb.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Corsica, visitclimatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 0.4 tonnes of C02, meaning a cost to offset of £3.03
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses with half a bottle of wine, unless otherwise stated
Auberge du Coucou Run by the same family since 1934, this welcoming inn boasts a well-stocked cellar with plenty of local bins. A modern alfresco dining room serves the likes of Mediterranean small plates, rotisserie-sizzled meat and Corsica’s iconic, must-try chestnut cake for dessert. From £25. Route D151, 20214 Calenzana, 00 33 4 95 62 77 00
La Cabane du Pêcheur Half an hour’s drive from Calvi and at the end of a back road, this beach shack is everything you could dream of for a holiday lunch. You’ll rub elbows with as many Corsicans as visitors and the view is idyllic. Great Slow Food prepared by the fisherman-chef – specialities such as langoustine rolls are not to be missed. No booking and a tad crowded but worth it. From £20. Route de la Mer, 20245 Galeria, 00 33 4 95 61 00 32
Chez Léon Expect family-style cooking served in a friendly atmosphere. The team here offer very good local charcuterie, a mean sauté de veau and scrummy potato gratin. From £35. Hôtel U San Dumé, 20225 Cateri, 00 33 4 95 61 73 95, hotel-corse-usandume.com
La Gaffe Portside restaurant with a Michelin-pedigree chef who creates pretty but restrained cuisine using the best local seafood, accompanied by accomplished sauces and decadent desserts. From £50. 25 Marinaccio, 20217 Saint-Florent, 00 33 4 95 37 00 12, restaurant-saint-florent.com
L’Oggi Facing the sea at Lumio, the restaurant spills onto the terrace of the modern Hôtel Chez Charles. The Michelin-starred cooking by chef Romain Roland is Parisian in style: think fresh crab with nepeta, and peach and fig leaf-flavoured pork belly. From £100. 32 Route de Bastia, 20260 Lumio, 00 33 4 95 60 61 71, hotelcorse-chezcharles.com
I Salti If you’ve ended up in Speloncato, you’ve gone too far: this gorgeous top-end restaurant in the middle of nowhere is closer to L’Île-Rousse. Every bit of it holds together: David Doury’s cooking – local produce-led dishes written daily on the chalk board – the wine and the owner’s personal service. From £70. Moulin de Salti, 20226 Speloncato, 00 33 4 95 34 35 59
I Scalini An eagle’s nest of a bistro in the hilltop village of Sant’Antonino. Relaxed and chatty staff. Simple but fresh food. If it’s crowded, head up to the roof and enjoy an aperatif while waiting for your table. From £20.
Haut du Village, 20220 Sant’Antonino, 00 33 4 95 47 12 92
La Table Part of Hôtel La Villa, this one-Michelin-star restaurant operates smooth fine dining (trust the sommelier for his knowledge of Corsican wines – those from Clos Columbu especially). From £80. Chemin Notre Dame de la Serra, 20260 Calvi, 00 33 4 95 65 83 60, hotel-lavilla.com
Le Tire Bouchon Nice little evening pit-stop bistro in central Calvi, serving inexpensive (by Corsican standards) sharing dishes. From £25. 15 Rue Georges Clemenceau, 20260 Calvi, 00 33 4 95 65 25 41
Food and Travel Review
Dorothy Carrington, in her classic Granite Island, considered Corsica ‘like a continent, its different regions corresponding to different countries’. How true. Even the Corsican language changes between the south ‘Cismuntincu’ and the north ‘Pumintincu’. Until 2018, France divided it into two separate départements, fractured by the range of mountains running through it like a spine. The administrative fault line may have sealed; little else has altered.
The real distinction on the island lies between coast and hinterland. One promises a sun lover’s nirvana; the other, dramatic bare rock, the regression of mountains merging into the sky and the impenetrable jungle of the maquis beyond. La Balagne, a canton of the old ‘Upper Corsica’ and its neighbouring finger of Cap Corse, raised towards the old master Genoa, share this once-menacing landscape. Before the arrival of tourism – still not yet fully there – the north boasted more shepherds than fishermen. Dr Johnson’s biographer James Boswell wrote an Account of Corsica. What struck him then was the lack of farms and isolated cottages. Instead he described huddled hamlets, paeses, blending into the hills. ‘At night,’ he wrote, ‘when the shepherds kindle their fires, the reflection of such a variety of light makes these villages have a most pleasing and picturesque appearance.’
They’ve kept their unique character – at least, when seen from a distance on the concertina-like D71 road heading inland from Lumio. Not that they’re all equal, of course. Sant’Antonino, perched on a pyramid hilltop, catches the eye from every twist in the road. It’s the destination of choice for travellers wanting to lose themselves in its steep alleys. A honeytrap for day trippers, the crowds don’t detract from its character and charm.
In contrast, the waitress at Chez Léon described Cateri as a village ‘that hasn’t lost its soul’. After dark, its empty, cobbled streets echo with the local Corsican dialect that wafts lyrically from patios and open windows. Dominique Raineri, an olive oil producer in nearby Zilia, recalls, ‘We didn’t have running water until 1956 and children still ran around barefoot.’
The Genoese, ruling here for five centuries (almost up to the birth of Napoleon, Corsica’s most famous scion), left a two-edged legacy. One law obliged landowners to plant four trees: an olive, almond, chestnut and fig – it’s no coincidence that these prized ingredients lead the island’s gourmet offering. Another protected vendetta killing from prosecution. It ensured influential families were too busy feuding with each other to make waves for their colonial overlord. The weapon of choice for revenge killing was the stylet. Master cutler Patrick Martin, in Calvi, still hand-forges these stilettos to order – costing up to £350 each – though the bulk of his work consists of sharpening scissors and hedge-clippers or making bone-handled clasp knives for hunters of the island’s wild boar.
Calvi borrows its name from the Italian for ‘bald’. A rocky citadel, it’s evolved from defensive bastion – Horatio Nelson lost an eye during its siege in 1794 – to a resort packed with jet-setters’ yachts. Apart from a Foreign Legion officers’ club, the fortress has lost touch with its bellicose past. Instead, it hosts Chez Tao, a piano bar that opens at 11pm and doesn’t close until 5am. Jacques Higelin, the late French rock star poet, dedicated a saw-throated ballad to it and Rihanna dropped by for a night on the tiles on her last visit.
While the town’s main street, Rue Clemenceau, has the livery of a Mediterranean resort, featuring plenty of drop-in eateries and knick-knack-filled shops, it is also home to Annie Traiteur. To call this shop Corsica’s Fortnum & Mason would be underselling it. Apart from the island’s wines and its goat and ewe’s milk cheeses, it offers up hot ‘beignets de brousse’, doughnuts made from buttermilk curd, flavoured with cédrat (citron), a recipe going back three generations.
Curtains of dusky charcuterie hang from the ceiling. The eponymous Annie’s daughter, Valerie, gives the insider’s story. Corsica is famed for its antique breed of black and white pigs. Every year visitors devour or take home 10,000 tonnes of lonzu (loin), coppa (collar),panzetta (belly) and prisuttu (ham). ‘The trouble is,’ she says, ‘that the autochthonous pig only meets a fraction of this demand. The rest comes from other commercial breeds.’ She sells both, but lets her customers taste the full gamut to appreciate the nuanced difference.
Pierre-Louis Pistorozzi breeds pedigree Corsican pigs on his farm at Ville-di-Paraso. His piglets stay with the sows for two months before he lets them range free. Born in the spring, he grants them two full summers before slaughter. ‘If it’s a good year for acorns and chestnuts, we take them into the hills and let them feast. It’s good for the meat.’ None of his meat is eaten fresh, he says, and like everyone else he has his own trick of air-drying and smoking it. ‘Someone at 1,000m isn’t going to cure it like someone at 300m because of the cold and the air.’
During the summer months you’ll not see much of the famous Corsican lamb, so treasured come autumn. It’s when shepherds stop milking their flocks and drive them into the mountains for the annual transhumance cycle of moving livestock. Instead, they leave behind ripening cheese, aged tomme and washed-rind niulincu, with its silky texture and powerful kick. Look harder and you may come across casgiu merzu (‘rotten cheese’). Roughly chopped curd is left open to the elements. Flies lay their eggs in it and it decomposes to an overpowering, fiery, spreadable paste, delicious or unpalatable, according to taste.
Its most famous cheese, brocciu, is similarly seasonal: abundant from November to June, it is almost invisible the rest of the year. ‘If you’ve not tasted it, you don’t know Corsica,’ wrote the poet Émile Bergerat. Similar to ricotta, it takes its flavour from the island’s wild herbs thyme, juniper, myrtle, oregano and nepeta (a kind of mint) growing in the maquis. The fritelle (fritters), migliacci (cheese topped flatbread) and fiadone (baked cheesecake) derive from it.
Dominique Raineri inherited his olive grove from his great- grandmother. During the First World War all of her male siblings died on the Western Front, leaving her to tend it alone. He’s scathing about the fashion for green extra virgin olive oils: ‘Fruit are better eaten ripe. You can’t eat an apricot or a peach when it’s hard and green. Olives are just the same.’ Many of his trees are over 300 years old – ‘That’s when the trunks start twisting.’ His way of harvesting is to leave nets fastened to stakes around the base and wait until the blackened oily fruit falls. He can only crop each tree every other year. ‘Growers switched to underripe fruit because they could get a crop every year.’ Among his olives, he keeps two chestnut trees, one overlooking a mountain stream, the other next to a natural spring. Both are weighed down with clustered chestnuts. One, he claims, gives larger nuts but they don’t taste as good as those from the other.
Corsicans treat ‘l’arbre à pain’ with respect. In the countryside chestnuts were once a staple food. They fattened livestock. Bees that gorged on the blossom supplied a treacly dark honey. Flavoured with nutmeg, they make a unique crème de marrons. Pietra, a popular brasserie in the north, uses châtaignes from the orchards of Castagniccio to flavour its amber brew.
I Salti, a restaurant in a converted mill in the Reginu Valley near Speloncato, uses chestnut flour in the base for its sourdough bread. The nutty flavour adds a special edge to the brittle crust. It’s the only Michelin-starred restaurant in France with a table d’hôtemenu chalked daily on a blackboard. Carina Canioni packs her disparate tables with Balagne’s ‘in crowd’. On any given night she might dish up four kinds of organic tomatoes with tomato paté, a tomato sorbet, black olives and purslane shoots with a tomato and olive oil dressing. Next, there may be red mullet fillets, confit egg yolk on a bed of spelt risotto, with the egg white converted to a mustard-flavoured soufflé. And for dessert, the kitchen will send out an almond sponge with a myrtle-leaf sorbet and saffron cream.
Jerome Voltzenlogel, executive chef at Hôtel La Villa in Calvi, says diners in luxury hotels like his have little time for tasting menus. They still expect the trappings of cuisine raffinée. Dabs of oscietra caviar fleck langoustine ravioli, more like wontons. Monkfish carpaccio lies on a pineapple dice sunbed bound with agar agar. Elsewhere, Romain Roland at L’Oggi in Lumio marinates sea bass gravlax in beetroot juice and accompanies seared foie gras with citrus marmalade and sancho berries. For dessert at La Gaffe, another restaurant in Saint-Florent, a perfectly formed blushing ‘peach’ made of white chocolate hides a peach poached in muscat wine mousse.
At La Cabane du Pêcheur in Galeria, Jérôme Poggi combines the roles of chef and fisherman: ‘Either I start late at night and return early in the morning, or I’ll get up at 4am, be back at eleven and start the service at midday. We catch what we need for the restaurant and don’t sell outside it.’ Only open for lunch, he displays one of the coolest menus ever on the cabin’s outer wall. It advertises ‘Slow-food-fast’, ‘Biodegradable dishes’ (compostable cartons, actually), ‘Home-made lemonade’ and ‘Club langouste’.
‘Nearly three-quarters of my catch is rock lobster and I want it to be accessible to everybody, not just overpriced restaurants with white tablecloths.’ A member of Corsica’s Slow Food chapter, his beers come from its founder Pierre-François Maestracci’s Ribella microbrewery. Unfiltered, unpasteurised, brewed with local hops and barley, they taste of the flowers of the maquis: curry plant, nepeta and myrtle.
His brasserie is in Corsica’s oldest AOC, Patrimonio. It produces the millions of bottles of rosé that holidaymakers swallow around the coast. Made, in the main, from Nielluccio grapes, they come in different shades – by macerating the must on the pressed skins to achieve colour – and from assorted limestone terroirs.
Domaine Montemagni, the largest and oldest of the wineries, prefers the saignée (bleeding) method, drawing off pink grape juice early in the fermentation of a red wine. A pale, blush tint, it sets off the chargrilled dorade served at Restaurant la Crique, a waterfront bistro in Saint-Florent, to perfection.
Mineral whites, from the widely grown Vermentino and Biancu Gentile, can surprise drinkers accustomed to chardonnay and sauvignon. At their best, as in Clos Columbu Blanc or Domaine Maestracci’s ‘E Provi’, they’re class acts well suited to both local seafood and goat’s cheese dishes.
Dorothy Carrington spent the second half of her life in Corsica. Two comments she wrote about the island stand out. She wrote that people meet on more intimate terms than elsewhere: ‘Not as guests, travellers and guides, but as anonymous human beings driven by their compulsions.’ Off the beaten track, the generous spirit she recognised is alive and well.
She also advised anyone who visited the island to: ‘Get away from here before you’re completely bewitched.’ How true.
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