Finding out about the daily lives and concerns of your characters is hard, especially when they aren’t famous historical figures. You don’t want to put all the details of food, dress, housing, etc. into your novel, but you still have to provide a convincing social background to the story.
I struggled with these issues in 18th-century Corsica, the setting for my latest novel, until I discovered an out-of-print French book about daily life on the island during that period. Combined with other sources, that saved me from potential howlers.
Where food is concerned, one is often in danger of committing the sin of anachronism. I was about to have my characters eat potatoes, when I learnt that, although they were introduced to Corsica in the 1750s, it’s very unlikely that people living in an isolated village would have known them.
A frugal diet
What did 18th-century Corsicans eat? Contemporaries noted the frugality of the Corsican diet. Corsica has always had a subsistence economy. People produced enough fruit and veg for their family’s needs, but little surplus. Corsica expert Dorothy Carrington first visited in the 1940s and noted, even then, the lack of structured agriculture on the island.
In addition, the Genoese, who ruled Corsica for several centuries, imposed a naval blockade to grind down resistance during the island’s 18th-century rebellion. Successive poor harvests also took their toll. Elaborate food in the 18th century was rare and normally confined to the main religious festivals, especially Easter, or to wedding breakfasts or funeral wakes.
James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s biographer, was known as “Corsica” Boswell during his lifetime. He visited the island in 1765 during the short-lived republic (1755-69) under Pasquale Paoli and on his return to London was an enthusiastic champion of Paoli.
Boswell was greatly taken with the Corsicans’ sparing way of life, including their diet of chestnuts and water or a small amount of wine. However, this didn’t stop him enjoying a meal composed of 12 courses and numerous wines at the house of a relative of Paoli in Murato.
Chestnuts, staple foodstuff
Grain was difficult to grow, except in the malarial eastern plain of Corsica, and was scarce during the blockades. Chestnuts were an alternative, since the trees were abundant. Corsicans made bread and a kind of polenta from chestnut flour, as well as soups and fritters. Paoli is credited with saying, “As long as we have chestnuts, we’ll have bread.”
Bread dough was prepared on a Friday and baked on a Saturday, in private or communal bread ovens, to last the week. By the following Saturday it had to be soaked in water to make it palatable.
Corsica’s national cheese
Cheese was also an important part of the Corsican diet, and remains so. Few cattle existed on the island, so cheese was made with goat’s or ewe’s milk. Corsican cheeses are usually very strong, which is fine by me, but more delicate palates might find them too pungent.
Brocciu (pronounced ‘brotch’) is a soft cheese that is still made between November and June. We once stayed in a B&B owned by Corsican people. Antoinette, our hostess, said, “If you are offered omelette au brocciu in the summer, then it will be made with powdered, reconstituted cheese. You don’t want to eat that rubbish.”
Brocciu has many uses, savoury and sweet, notably in omelette au brocciu or in fiadone, a kind of cheesecake made in the north of the island. Bastella was a pasty filled with brocciu and onion or Swiss chard and flavoured with herbs from the maquis, the aromatic scrub that covers much of Corsica.
Meat and fish
Meat was rare in ordinary Corsicans’ diet. Sheep grazed in the Niolu and other high mountain areas of the island, but for most people the main meat was pork, with some goat and game, such as wild boar. Pigs roamed freely – and still do – and were normally slaughtered around Christmas. Corsica remains noted for its charcuterie, including figatellu, a sausage made of pig’s liver, dried and smoked for several weeks.
Except for river trout, fresh fish was unknown in the inaccessible interior of the island. Salt fish was imported from Italy, especially in Cap Corse. In modern coastal resorts, many restaurants specialise in fish, but it’s overpriced in my opinion, especially in the high season.
Much of the best Corsican food was, and remains, winter sustenance. When Dorothy Carrington left the island for the first time she was told, “You’ve seen nothing. You’ve eaten nothing, either. All our best food belongs to winter.”
Paul Arrighi, La Vie Quotidienne en Corse au XVIIIe Siècle
James Boswell, An account of Corsica, the journal of a tour to that island and memoirs of Pascal Paoli
Dorothy Carrington, Granite Island: Portrait of Corsica
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Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2017, all rights reserved.