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Mountains, Forests and Maquis

Duck, marinated cherries, hazelnut, chanterelle, marigold and lovage salad
Written by Kieran Creevy | Photography by Claire Burge

cooking wild in Corsica

There’s nothing shy and retiring about Corsican food or drink, and come to think of it, the same could be said of the mountains of Corsica.

Driving to a trailhead is an exercise in white-knuckled terror and adrenaline induced laughter as you realise that some Corsicans really don’t understand the concept of speed limits. The average Corsican driver seems to have adopted the ‘Gallic shrug’ attitude to road rules with the Italian male’s ability to smoke, talk on their mobile, grab their crotch and drive on twisty mountain roads, all at the same time.

When you get to the trailhead, be aware that the temptation to follow a compass bearing to the boulder field that you saw from the road will probably leave you with gouges, not scratches, on your arms and legs. The thorny shrubs here have more in common with African plants than wussy English/Irish brambles.

Hike along any of the myriad trails that criss-cross the island and you’ll soon understand how Corsica earned the appellation of ‘scented isle’. From early spring onwards you’ll get the smell of juniper, rosemary, laurel, sage, heather, myrtle, wild thyme, rock rose, lavender and Corsican natives like Nepeta (also called mountain balsam, calamint, or Corsican marjoram), and l’immortelle d’Italie (usually called the curry plant).

With this profusion of wild herbs, as well as local specialities like Lomo and Coppa (cured meats), fresh fig jam, chestnut breads, beer (yes chestnut beer, and bloody good too – Pietra), preserves and pastas, sheep and goats cheeses (most of which never make it out of the country due to customs regulations), fortified sweet wines (Cap Corse, Muscat, Vin d’Orange), edible fungi, berries and wild game, there’s more than enough wild and cultivated foods with which to pack your rucksack and head off for a day of biking, kayaking or any other adventure your body craves.

Cooking in the outdoors here requires some special considerations. Due to the hot temperatures, extensive woodland, dry undergrowth and the constant threat of forest fires during the summer, open fires are banned. Cooking is therefore restricted to small camping stoves.

(with French Translation)

2 duck breasts, skin on
(magret de canard)
300g chanterelle mushrooms
(chanterelle or Girolle)
200g fresh hazelnuts
200g fresh cherries
Large handful lovage
Handful marigold leaves & flowers
Handful of maquis herbs
Rosemary (romarin), laurel (laurier), mint (menthe), juniper (genévrier), thyme (thym), lavender (lavende)
100g butter
1 glass cherry syrup
(Sirop de cerises)
Salt and pepper
(Sel et poivre)
2 heaped tsp sugar

Serves 4

Buying Locally

If you’re smart with your timing, buy the majority of your ingredients (Duck, mushrooms, nuts, fruit and greens) from the village markets – ask around, you’ll be given the market days for the surrounding villages/towns. Unlike in the UK and Ireland, farmers markets in Corsica never went out of fashion so even small & speciality producers have stalls in the village.

Where to find wild edibles

Herbs: learn how to identify the herbs common to the maquis, and experiment with the flavour combinations (NB Nepeta is a lot more pungent than marjoram, so use sparingly). When foraging for wild leaves/herbs/other edibles, make 100% sure you know how to identify the plant – using expert advice or multiple reference sources, don’t pick within 50m of a road, don’t destroy the plant, pick sparingly – allow it to flower/fruit/grow new leaves again, and if unsure at all, do not eat

Be especially careful when foraging for mushrooms/fungi as a mistake could be fatal. One fantastic service offered by some French pharmacies is a fungi and mushrooms advisory to let you know if your haul is edible or not.


Base Camp Preparation

Score the skin side of the duck breasts lightly in a criss-cross pattern, taking care not to cut down to the flesh. Lightly score the flesh a few times, season with salt, pepper, and your preferred maquis mix. Store in a ziploc bag. Halve and stone the cherries, place in a ziploc bag and pour over the syrup.

In Camp

Wash and pat dry the marigold and lovage, tear the marigold flowers, place in a spare pot.
Place a fry pan on a high heat.
Put the marinated duck breasts skin side down on the pan, no oil required, and sear.
Turn to sear the flesh for 2 minutes, then return to the skin side.
Cook on a high heat for 3 minutes, cover with a lid, reduce to a simmer for a further 5 minutes, remembering to move the duck so the skin crisps but doesn’t burn.
Cut into the centre of the breast to check, it should be pink but not bloody. If it’s bloody, cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Remove and leave to rest.
n.b. never let duck cook until brown all the way through, as it will lose much of its flavour.
Pour off the residue from the pan into a cup (this could be used to coat potatoes, or form the base of a sauce)
Dry the pan with a paper towel.
Toast the hazelnuts over a medium heat for 1 min, sprinkle the sugar over the nuts and continue to toast (tossing frequently) for a further 1 min. Add the nuts to the leaves
Keeping the pan on a medium heat add the butter, allow to melt then add the mushrooms.
Season with salt and pepper, cook for 2- 3 mins, then add to the leaves and nuts.
Slice the duck thinly, and add to the salad.
Top with the cherries and liquid.
Split into individual bowls, and sprinkle extra fresh herbs over the top.

Maquis (pronounced Mack-E) refers to the melange of wild herbs and flowers that carpet the island from sea level to more than 1000m, and not the Islands historical bandits (from which they got their name).

In addition to fifteen years work as an international mountain leader and trekking guide on five continents, Kieran has nearly two decades experience of catering for some of the most demanding customers – fellow instructors who want nutritious food with a bit flair, lots of it, now and don’t care that it’s minus 10c and snowing!
Twitter @kierancreevy

Claire has been described as part chaos, part rocket fuel. When she is isn’t racing down mountains on her bicycle, you will find her behind a lens and licking the wooden spoon.
Twitter @claireburge