Editor’s note: To further explore how the pandemic has affected the areas featured in our 2020 “Neighborhoods to Visit” guide and what recovery may look like, we will be publishing dispatches from restaurants, markets and food shops in these districts all week long.
The close links between Marseille and the French island of Corsica are, in some ways, clearly marked in the city. Like the red-and-white Corsica Linea ferries docked in Marseille’s port that make daily crossings across the Mediterranean. Or the prevalence of Corsican canistrelli at Marseille’s boulangeries and biscuiteries.
Yet, in spite of the large corse presence in Marseille since the 19th century (according to an article in Corse-Matin, Corsica’s daily newspaper, Marseille has more Corsicans than the island’s capital, Ajaccio), only a handful of shops are devoted to delicacies from the French territory. U Mio Paese, whose name means “My Country” in Corsican, is one of them.
This tiny épicerie corse is a treasure trove of the three Cs of Corsican gastronomy – charcuterie, cheese and chestnuts. Don’t know your Bastelicacciu from your Brocciu? Owner Marie-Paule and her associate Marc-Antoine are happy to guide you. “I couldn’t sell anything but food,” says Marie-Paule, who lights up when talking about her homeland’s cuisine. Even with the Covid-19 plastic shield and mask, her bright eyes show she’s smiling.
The Ajaccio-born proprietor found her way to a life in Marseille as many Corsicans do – first coming for university and then falling in love with a local. Bored with her civil servant job, she teamed up with her sister-in-law to import authentic Corsican goods that were hard to find in Marseille. After finding success at the Cinq-Avenues farmers’ market, they opened a brick-and-mortar space in the village-like neighborhood in 1985.
A deli case stuffed with cured pork products sits at U Mio Paese’s front window, tempting you to take the French word for window shopping, léche-vitrines (“window licking”), literally. Once you see the wall of hanging sausages inside, you’ll understand that Corsica is synonymous with charcuterie.
This is thanks to the black nustrale pig, unique to the island for thousands of years. This rare breed roams freely from mountain pastures to forests, dining on nature instead of being stuffed with grains and additives. Along with their autumnal intake of chestnuts, this natural diet lends the porc noir (porcu neru in Corsican) a fantastically rich flavor.
Once you see the wall of hanging sausages inside, you’ll understand that Corsica is synonymous with charcuterie.
Classic cuts include the dark-red marbled coppa, panzetta (bacon) and lonzu, made with the pork loin. We can’t resist the noix du jambon, decadently enrobed in a thick layer of fat. Skinny figatelli (sausage) is made of pork liver and pork meat – the darker the color, the higher the percentage of liver. Artisanal figatelli is only available in winter after the pigs are slaughtered. These taste bombs are delicious when grilled for sandwiches or topped upon pizzas the Marseillais way.
“These guys aren’t dicking around,” quipped the late Anthony Bourdain in his Parts Unknown Marseille episode as he devoured a giant platter of charcuterie. He loved it so much he insisted on handing slices to his camera crew while filming.
Though Corsican charcuterie is world-famous, it is challenging to find the real deal. Industrial versions are prevalent, and the true artisans often don’t have time to market their wares. This is why Marie-Paule’s work is so vital. On her trips to Corsica, she seeks out only the highest quality, sometimes venturing into remote corners of the island – areas often without cell service – to find the best local pork butchers.
She does the same for the cheese sold at U Mio Paese, which are all made from raw sheep or goat’s milk. The most popular is Brocciu, a whey cheese that is used in many sweet and savory Corsican recipes. One of them, the cheesecake fiadone, is sometimes sold in the shop. Keep in mind, though, that fresh AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or Protected Designation of Origin) Brocciu is seasonal, from November to June.
From an aged niolo to a soft-rind Bastelicacciu, U Mio Paese’s fromage is color-coded by potency, from blue (mild) to red (strong). These are relative terms, however, since all the cheeses, like the charcuterie, are pungent and strong-flavored.
Besides being fodder for local pigs, chestnuts (castagnu in Corsican, and châtaigne in French) are prominent in Corsican foodstuffs, thanks to a tree-planting initiative by Genoan leadership in the 15th century to promote sustenance on the island. (Though now part of France, Corsica was ruled by Italian states for 500 years, hence the similarities in names and language.)
U Mio Paese sells confiture de châtaigne (chestnut jam) and farine de châtaigne (chestnut flour) for cakes and flans – with a recipe on the wall for home bakers. You can also find Pietra, the Corsican chestnut beer that’s poured at bars across Marseille.
For dessert, stock up on the iconic canistrelli and cujuelle cookies plus frappes (beignets.) The fig confiture (preserve) is “great with cheese,” says Marie-Paule. While giving us tastes of miel (honey), she shares how the beekeeper moves his hives both to capture seasonal flavors and to benefit the land.
When Covid-19 put small businesses in peril, U Mio Paese jumped into action. They instilled a delivery service for Marseille customers outside of the neighborhood and launched an e-shop in response to the rise in online shopping. Marc-Antoine explains that their Corsican clients ordered more than usual, since travel bans restricted them from visiting the island. Was product sourcing an issue? “No,” Marie-Paule says, a grin on her face, “there are still pigs in Corsica.”
Being located in Cinq-Avenues also helped. Here, residents shirk supermarkets in favor of small boulangeries, boucheries and fromageries. Particularly the elderly, who seek camaraderie in shops after being forbidden to see their loved ones. They are among the regulars at U Mio Paese, whose familiarity gives the shop more of a village feel than its big city address would suggest.
Corsica is nicknamed the Île de Beauté for its breathtaking mountains that spill into turquoise coves. “It’s quite distinctive, growing up on an island where the horizon stretches interminably,” shares Marie-Paule. She starts humming “Kalliste,” the song inspired by the Greek name for Corsica meaning “most beautiful.” Her mind wanders off to her homeland. Which is so deliciously represented in her Marseille shop.
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