The French Connection

The Corsicans know how to live the good life. But is that because of their Gallic ties? No, says Stephanie Debere, France's island outpost is Mediterranean at heart

'The French think they've gone abroad when they visit Corsica," was a phrase I heard repeatedly during my stay on the island. This wasn't just because of the 100 nautical miles that divide it from mainland France. The separation runs deeper than geography, or even politics (though Corsican nationalism remains high on the agenda). The French may see the island as theirs politically, but at street level they regard Corsica as a nation apart.

'The French think they've gone abroad when they visit Corsica," was a phrase I heard repeatedly during my stay on the island. This wasn't just because of the 100 nautical miles that divide it from mainland France. The separation runs deeper than geography, or even politics (though Corsican nationalism remains high on the agenda). The French may see the island as theirs politically, but at street level they regard Corsica as a nation apart.

In British eyes, too,la France profonde is distinct from Corsica - though unlike the French, we are mistaken. We associate wine, gastronomy and good living with mainland France, while Corsica conjures up images of Napoleon and rugged outdoor sports. But Corsicans know how to live well and are keen to share their bonhomie with strangers. This has nothing to do with their Gallic ties: the Corsican lifestyle predates French control by centuries, happily holding its own against any mainland region. Forget Bonaparte and hiking - the island warrants visiting on gastronomic grounds alone.

"We say we're 'Français pour la vie, Corse pour toujours' [French for life, Corsican for ever]," explains Jean-Philippe di Grazia of the Tourism Agency. "Technically, we're French, but really we're more Mediterranean. Everyone who came left their mark." And the rugged 120 by 50-mile island has seen a veritable Who's Who of ancient and medieval invaders: Phoenician, Greek, Etruscan, Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Saracen, Tuscan, Pisan, Aragonese and British. Even the papacy once reigned.

Most influential were the Genoese, who ruled from the 13th century before ceding it to France in 1768. Today, the two cultures can't be disentangled. Croissants and cheek-kissing are commonplace but the Corsican language, still spoken by many older villagers, resembles Italian. Balzac astutely described Corsica as a "French island in the Italian sun".

That certainly seems the case on arrival in Ajaccio, the relaxed seaside town that is Corsica's capital. Set in a wide, mountainous gulf, Ajaccio bears a superficial resemblance to a Riviera resort - Nice, perhaps - with pastel-shuttered buildings, ornate palms and an atmospheric harbour. But its solid citadel and turreted, toy-style watchtowers speak of an insecure past, while the Corsican flag flutters ubiquitously. It's one of the world's most original (not a stripe in sight) and rather menacing, depicting a startling black profile with a white headband, on a white background.

Ironically, locals are dismissive of the man with whom most foreigners identify their island. The alleys of Ajaccio's old Genoese quarter contain the mansion where Napoleon was born. "He's not important to us," said Jean-Philippe. "He did everything for France, nothing for Corsica." When asked, in exile, why he hadn't helped the island more, Bonaparte replied: "I didn't have the time."

The most radical change in recent centuries has come through tourism. Despite their 600-mile coastline, Corsicans weren't a coastal people until the Sixties when visitors began arriving in numbers. "Corsica went from the 19th to the 21st century in 20 years," said Jean-Philippe. "Until 40 years ago, 80 per cent of the population lived a rural mountain life, away from potential invaders. With tourism, 80 per cent now live on the coast." Although the island welcomes two million visitors annually (nearly eight times its 260,000 population), development has been low-impact. Despite a few resorts, the island remains unspoiled.

The seafood is superb, with starring roles for monkfish, sea bass and soupe de poissons, but Ajaccio also offers a mouth-watering introduction to inland Corsican delicacies. With whole hams dangling from ceilings and shelves stacked high, U Stazzu is a treasure-house selling traditional produce, much of it flavoured by the aromatic herbal maquis scrub that covers Corsica's lower zones.

Within minutes, the patron had me bravely tasting samples that fell into two categories: the familiar (olive oils, liqueurs, honey, biscuits, herb-infused vinegars) and the unidentifiable (chestnut flour, dried pig's cheek, wild boar pâté, black fig jam, and numerous types of charcuterie). Corsica's pigs roam wild, feeding on chestnuts, acorns and maquis, which gives their meat a unique flavour. Goat's and sheep's cheeses straddle both categories, being fromage but not as we know it. These foods have become fashionable, artisan-produced delicacies, now subject to appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) regulation. There are six grands crus for honey, for example, while brocciu, a delicious clean-tasting mozzarella-style cheese, also has its own AOC.

After a harbourside aperitif (Colomba, a tasty white beer flavoured with maquis), it was time for a real meal. In the Genoese quarter is U Pampasgiolu, a traditional restaurant serving rustic cuisine at its finest, with a background of native polyphonic music (a restful chanting). In these multi-ethnic days, it's rare to encounter an entire feast of unfamiliar flavours and textures, but the delicious array of dishes that appeared on a huge wooden platter presented just that. Tart of spinach and brocciu, stuffed tomato, cured ham and sausage; a mini-tureen of thick soup-stew made from beans, vegetables and ham; mini casserole pots of chestnut polenta and veal and olive stew; a hard fromage Corse served with fig and walnut jam.

Utterly seduced, I headed northwards towards Corsica's produce heartlands: the Balagne region and Patrimonio, the oldest and most reputable of Corsica's nine AOC wine areas. The best route is via the west coast where mountains plunge seawards. To travel round Corsica, you need to drive, as public transport is limited. Every twisted, mountainous road I'd ever negotiated seemed straight by comparison with these spaghetti-loops of tar. Most are hacked out of pleated mountainsides, bordered by vertiginous plunges and barely wide enough for two cars to pass. With the distraction of some of the finest alpine-ocean views, it's a hair-raising ride.

After two hours' tugging at the wheel, I arrived at the Gulf of Porto, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and was restored by a three-hour cruise below the contorted rust-red volcanic cliffs with an escort of fish eagles and leaping dolphins. Nearby is Piana, set high on the mountainside above the sea - officially "one of France's prettiest villages" - with shuttered pink and ochre houses clustered beneath a church tower painted dusky rose.

Here, Les Roches Rouges, a restored Edwardian hotel, marries crumbling grandeur with extraordinary views over village, open sea and a series of convoluted cliffs known as the Calanches of Piana - piles of salmon-pink boulders woven with maquis.Dinner was suitably fortifying: asparagus soup with brocciu ravioli, dorado steamed in cabbage leaves, pungent village cheeses and tarte aux fraîses worthy of a Paris patisserie.

Two hours north lies Calvi, a seductive Italianate town with a Genoese citadel above a restaurant-lined marina. Despite its small size, Calvi has drawn great men: Napoleon took refuge here in his godfather's house; and the Calvois claim that Christopher Columbus (usually said to be Genoese) was born here in 1436.

My guide, Andrée Sinibaldi, was also born in one of the citadel's old houses, near the Baroque cathedral and governor's palace (now owned by the Foreign Legion). Although she looked more like a fan of Madonna than of traditional chanting, she enthused about the polyphonic singing festival held every September in the 16th-century St Anthony's Oratory, and the elaborate religious celebrations, with icons carried through the cobbled alleys. "It's part of my background," she smiled. Unlike Jean-Philippe's broad Mediterranean definition of Corsican identity, Andrée's was finely tuned: "First I'm of the Citadel, then of Calvi, then I'm Corsican, then French."

Across the bay stretches the fertile Balagne region. Small terracotta villages straddle ridges and hug the hillsides below jagged snowcaps. Untamed in appearance but rich in vineyards, olive and almond groves and apiaries, Balagne harbours workshops and stores selling homemade produce. A Route des Artisans links the villages and guides visitors to craftsmen who work according to traditions that have outlived the simple lifestyles that inspired them. Oil is pressed from olives collected in nets as they fall, their ripeness generating a gentle fruity flavour. It's normal to sample before you buy and I ended up with a stomach full of strange combinations: honey, cheese, charcuterie, chestnut cakes and almond biscuits. Ceramics, essential oils, musical instruments and jewellery are also available.

Suitably weighed down with jars, bottles and parcels, I continued north to Patrimonio. Were it not for the Route des Vins signs, I wouldn't have realised this was wine country. Only on close inspection did the maquis-covered hills reveal their ordered patches of bright green vines. Patrimonio's 35 family-run domaines use modern technology to reinforce traditional practices. "We are like Astérix," smiles the sprightly Jean-Laurent de Bernardi, in the dry-stone cave where he bottles and sells his family's wine. "We've stayed in our own little world, while everything around us changed. When other Corsican producers adopted industrialised methods, we stuck to tradition. They laughed at us but, now the trend is for natural products from small producers, they're re-adopting the methods we never abandoned."

As I sampled a berry-rich red, Jean-Laurent passionately explained how the wine is produced; he also sells a golden white, a crisp rosé and a devilishly sweet muscat that's a fine match for aggressive, salty cheeses. Although wine has been produced in Corsica since the Greeks introduced grapes nearly 3,000 years ago, little is exported. "Most is consumed here," says Jean-Laurent. "We concentrate on quality, not quantity."

Each November, the whole village joins in a ceremony to taste the new season's wines, parading through the centre from the imposing stone church before a communal feast. July sees the folk guitar festival. "People come from all over the world," said Jean-Laurent. "Everyone's welcome - that's the paradox of Corsica. We've been invaded so much you'd expect people to be defensive and suspicious. But we're extremely open."

He's right. Although the word "vendetta" is historically theirs, Corsicans are relaxed and warm, and have much to share. Despite determined consuming, I didn't sample all the curiosities I'd hoped to. Chestnut beer, sea urchins and wild boar stew, live polyphonic singing, and wine festivals will have to wait until next time. Leaving the island, it seemed strange that I'd ever regarded it simply as the rocky Gallic outpost that spawned Napoleon. Seen through its culture, Corsica is the most quintessentially Mediterranean of places.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Stephanie Debere travelled as a guest of Air France (0845-0845 111; www.airfrance.com/uk), which flies to Corsica's Calvi and Ajaccio airports from London via Paris Orly from £228 return. British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from London Gatwick to Bastia from £130 return.

Where to stay

Hotel les Roches Rouges, 20115 Piana, Corsica, (00 33 4 9527 8181) offers double rooms from €72(£50) breakfast costs €10 (£7).

Further information

Maison de la France (09068 244123, 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com) and the Corsican Tourist Board ( www.visit-corsica.com).

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