It’s September and summer is drawing to a close. Everyone has returned from their long holidays and are settling back into work and school, and you wonder how it is that the summer months have yet again passed so quickly! I find myself scrolling longingly through the photos of our summer holiday, and looking back so fondly on one of the highlights of our travel this year – Corsica.
There is something about being on an island that makes you feel like you are escaping the world and all of the realities and responsibilities of life. For just those few days, you are completely, utterly, fantastically relaxed. But this is not just any island – similar to the way I feel after a week in Bali, I left this island with a sense of peace. Which is quite surprising, since there was news of a bombing while we were there…but I’ll get back to that later.**
We spent seven days there with four very close friends, and stayed close to Porticcio and the south-western shores of the island. I fell in love with Corsica’s charm and warmth, its natural beauty, all of its characteristics that are uniquely Corsican. The local government are very strict about adhering to the natural environment and the traditional architecture of the island (think white/cream washed granite walls and tiled roofs), and as such, despite being an extremely popular tourist destination, it has managed to retain its charm and original character.
We flew into Campo dell Oro Airport in Ajaccio (there are four airports in total), and stayed at the Mercure Hotel for one night. At just under €100 a night, it was clean, basic but well-appointed and suited us just fine.
For our first meal, we chose to eat lunch at a restaurant along the Marina, in front of the hotel. Very original I know, but we were on holiday and we just wanted a nice place to eat in the sun, reunited with our friends who we hadn’t see in 6 months. I cannot remember what the name of the restaurant was, and cannot find it on google. All I can tell you is that it was the very last restaurant of a long line of restaurants at the Tino Rossi Marina. We also had dinner here as well, sporting out red and gold Spain caps as we cheered on our favoured team against Italy in the Euro Cup 2012 final.
We were recommended to visit the Ajaccio Farmers Market for lunch on the weekend, but unfortunately received the recommendation too late, and didn’t manage to go. Definitely something for next time, as this market has a cornucopia of fresh breads, cheeses, charcuterie and fruits – all you need to make the tastiest Corsican picnic you could imagine. We jumped in the car and in the spirit of adventure, drove along the beautiful coastline, without a map and no particular destination in mind, to try and find a nice beach to work on a base tan! After stopping off at the charming Le Maquis Hotel (chic place, chic price), they pointed us in the direction of the Plage de Mare e Sole, just another 15 minute drive south.
There we found exactly what we were looking for – A Pineta chez Emile, a great little beach club/pizzeria/restaurant right on the beach. We rented a sun bed each at €5 for the day, which is a pretty reasonable amount. Add on the 4 cocktails and 2 bottles of water and you are soon paying €60-70. It’s to be expected of a beach club, but not something you want to be doing every day.
We ate a very nice lunch in their restaurant once, but chose largely the salad and meat dishes. Fish is surprisingly expensive on the island, so be aware when you order it. They often price the fish per 100g on the menu, which was around €13 per 10og if I remember correctly. Be sure to ask them how big the fish is – we were told each was around 1.3kg, which would make the one dish €130 (HK$1,300). Even if you are sharing between two, that is an expensive main course for lunch!
I was surprised to find that despite being surrounded by water, Corsican food is traditionally more meat-oriented. Due to disease around coastal areas and maritime threats in the old days, Corsicans mainly resided inland, such that traditional dishes feature more game meats such as wild boar, smoked and cured pig and boar meats and sausages, sheep and goat cheese, chestnuts and legumes.
We enjoyed a really wonderful evening at La Bergerie, a highly recommended restaurant in Ruppione (nice for dinner with friends, perfect for a romantic meal). After an aperitif of kir royale by the water, we were lead to our table by one of the very friendly and helpful staff, the path lit up by tea light candles nestled in bags of sand. Crisp white linens were spread on the tables sheltered by large white umbrellas, the chairs made very comfortable by the addition of blue and white striped cushions.
All of the staff were very helpful and informative, suggesting some good Corsican wines and guiding us through the menu. The restaurant was romantically lit, and therefore we were glad that the menu was presented traditionally on a large blackboard. The lighting was also unfortunately not conducive to good photo-taking, so you will just have to trust me that the three starters of Port Foie Gras, Salmon Tartare, and Tuna Tataki were more than satisfactory.
For the main course, we asked to be shown the Catch of the Day, and were presented with two large homard (European lobsters), and two whole loup (European seabass), freshly line-caught that day.
Since one of us wasn’t a huge fan of shellfish, we opted for the sea bass. There were plenty of ooohs and aaaaahs when it arrived at the table, served on a platter and flanked with clams, mussels and a beautiful assortment of grilled vegetables! We were told it would serve 2-3, so we had ordered one more dish to tide us over. The filet of beef was tender and well-cooked, but we couldn’t finish it all. It’s a good thing to remember when ordering – even though side dishes aren’t mentioned, some orders may come with a generous helping of them, so be sure to ask your waiter!
The next day we decided to visit the breathtakingly serene Cala d’Orzu, further south along the coast. We had been to A Pineta two days in a row, and were searching for a something a little less crowded and showy. It was a 20 minute drive from the house, along winding, narrow and sometimes extremely pot-holed cliff side roads. In the beginning it’s a bit nauseating, but you get used to it and find that the trick to survival is to go at it slowly and try to avoid the local drivers.
I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that this is one of the best beaches I have ever seen in my life – I was fortunate enough to call Seven Mile beach in the Cayman Islands my backyard when I was younger (said to be one of the best beaches in the world), but Cala d’Orzu is a very close second! Fine, white sand, crystal clear blue waters, surrounded by lush verdant green mountains.
As soon as we arrived at the beach in the morning, we reserved a table at Chez Francis, a ‘paillote’ restaurant right on the beach. With its lack of walls, thatched roof and sandy floors, it was exactly what we were looking for. Chez Francis is a well-known restaurant which made international news when it was burned to the ground, not by the Corsican mafia, but by the undercover French police because it was built without planning permission.
It has since been rebuilt, and the food at Chez Francis was amazing: and I think we all agreed that it was our Number 1 meal. It was huge and it was excessive, but we also all agreed when we were making our order, meals like these don’t come along every day. We we’re on holiday, so sod it – you only live once!
Now, the main course of our meal deserves a description. This, my friends, is a HOMARD.
It’s big, it’s blue when alive and kicking but turns lobster-red when cooked; it’s got huge claws, and it’s found off the Northern Coast of France. This was the first time I have heard of a “Homard”, and it led to a little big of confusion in terms of French lobster terminology. What is a “Homard” exactly, and how does it differ from a “Langouste”, which until then, I thought was the French word for “lobster”…? I had to clarify this for myself, and this is what I found:
A Homard, or Homardus, is a genus of lobster that is found in America or Europe. In Europe most are caught on the northern shores in Brittany. They have exceptionally large claws which are different from one another – one is for cutting and the other for crushing.
A Langouste, or Rock Lobster, have spiny antennae, have no claws and are sometimes called crayfish or crawfish. They have some characteristics of lobsters, but aren’t actually related.
A Langoustine, although much smaller, is part of the lobster family, and is also known as Dublin Bay Prawns or Scampi.
The final restaurant worth noting is Chez Helene, located very close to A Pineta. It is a down-to-earth beachside restaurant with an open kitchen, separated from the diners by bamboo blinds. Every now and then, the French-speaking Vietnamese chef will come out to say hello and explain the origin of his dishes, and the menu changes frequently. The first night we went, he was serving Vietnamese fare, and when we went again on our last night, it had changed to Indian (of sorts) cuisine.
It is the perfect setting to watch the sun go down while sipping on a glass of rosé wine. There is sometimes live music played at Chez Hélène , although we unfortunately didn’t manage to catch it.
The Indian menu had fewer choices, and although it was not very authentic at all, the flavours were more enjoyable that the Vietnamese menu. Overall I found the food to be quite unimpressive, however the desserts were INCREDIBLE, and the convivial atmosphere and amazing sunsets at Chez Hélène made up for what the food was lacking.
This amazing holiday was made possible by our very gracious and generous friends, to whom I must say thank you, a thousand times thank you. This holiday would not have been what it was without them. I should also mention that we visited Corsica in the first week of July, before Les Grandes Vacances (the summer holidays) start in France, and before Corsica gets crowded to a point where I’m sure the vibe is completely different.
Last but not least, I must include pictures of all the great meals that we cooked chez nous. We all took turns to make home-cooked meals, and I must say we did a pretty fine job of it.
A Pineta chez Emile
Plage de Mare E Sole 20138 Coti Chiavari
Tel: 04 95 25 44 08
Restaurant La Bergerie
Rupione Porticcio – 20166
Tel: 04 95 25 40 53
Plage de Cala d’Orzu 20138 Coti-Chiavari
Tel: 04 95 27 10 39
Chez Hélène (Somewhere near Plage de Mare e Sole, facing the water, look to the left and you’ll see an old stand-alone house by the beach. That’s it)
**An Epilogue (sort of): I add this little paragraph here because I didn’t want to talk about bombings right in the beginning of my post, nor could I find another place to put it. Despite some of the unfortunate occurrences that happen there due to local mafia, there was never a nanosecond when we felt unsafe!!
Corsica was once a province of the Roman Empire, and then briefly formed an independent republic before being conquered and occupied by France. Corsican culture has both Italian and French influences, and thus so does its cuisine. Although a region of France, Corsica has a little more autonomy, it’s own regional language (which is closer to Italian than French), and it’s own identity, which they fiercely protect. We felt that firsthand when on the 2nd day in Corsica, we heard of a Parisian bankers villa being bombed.