Quenza is a quiet village in the Alta Rocca (“High Rock”) region of southern Corsica. Its winter population is certainly well short of 100 people, but, in the summer—as in all Corsican mountain villages, the streets fill with people. Sons and daughters, along with grandchildren, return like salmon to swim in deep cultural waters that transmit Corsican traditions from generation to generation.
I know Quenza because my wife’s mother is from a nearby village, and we make our own annual summer migration there, by car from Toulouse—where we live, then by ferryboat from one of France’s Mediterranean ports, and then again by car up twisty mountain roads. Quenza is also the jumping off point for a 1,200-meter-high plateau, known as the Coscione, where my wife’s father spent summers with his family to escape the heat and the malaria-carrying mosquitoes that infested, at that time, his native seaside village that is now part of the urban sprawl of Porto-Veccchio in southeastern Corsica.
I’ve written before about the Coscione with its landscape of enormous granite boulders shaped by glacial forces, and the wind and rain, into bizarre forms resembling giant craniums complete with cavernous eyes and hooked noses, and trails of what look to be giant cow vertebrae. It’s filled with the fragrance of the maquis, an exquisite collection of pungent wild thyme, rosemary, sage and mint, intertwined with the dandelion fresh, hauntingly exotic scent of l’immortelle—a pale-yellow, scrub-grass flower, poetically named “the immortal” because it never fades, even after having been picked. Fragrance makers must lie awake at night trying to imagine ways to bottle the cacophony of unforgettable wild flower-herbal-pine-resin doors of the maquis.
My father-in-law introduced me to this part of Corsica, which many Corsicans call, to distinguish it from the touristy seaside, “la vraie Corse” (“the real Corsica”). My family and I return each year, hiking past the weathered rocks and the wild cows and pigs that roam here (feasting on mint and other wild plants that make their fragrant meat famous throughout France) to reach his childhood summer village. Even mid-way through his eighth decade, my wife and I, and our three sons, have difficulty keeping up to him.
For me, an American, to introduce something new to a Corsican like my father-in-law who knows this plateau intimately, is akin to him telling me about the best bar in my native Pittsburgh to order spicy, “Buffalo-style” chicken wings.
Only a set of loosely related events allowed us to sample a slice of Corsica that I never would have imagined had survived into the 21st century. In 2012, during a winemaking internship for my oenology studies. I met Oronce de Beler, who had given up his job as Advertising Director for the French wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France to become a Burgundy wine negociant. In addition to his wine business, de Beler also produces horse-drawn, vineyard-plowing equipment, and he also has several horses that he uses to plow the soil at a number of well-known Burgundy estates.
In speaking with de Beler about wine, and then about Corsica, I discovered that he had encountered, while hiking the famously difficult GR20 trail that crosses the mountainous interior of Corsica, a man on the Coscione plateau who had invited him to come in January to learn how to make Corsican charcuterie. I wrote in a blog entry about how de Beler had brought back from Corsica, following his meat-making internship, three little Corsican pigs. The irony of their settling into a wooded enclosure just above what’s arguably the most valuable vineyard in the world—the Domaine de Romanée-Conti in Vosne-Romanée, was not lost on me.
The source of the pigs, according to de Beler, was a man from Quenza named Pierrot. Now, if de Beler didn’t have a name right out of an Alexandre Dumas novel, I might have just forgotten about it. But, it kept rattling about in my head, and I finally remembered that each time we drove up to the Coscione plateau to hike we drove past what appeared to be a Corsican “Dude Ranch” with a homemade sign saying “Chez Pierrot.” The literal translation of this is “Pierrot’s abode.” And those familiar with France will know that it more often than not indicates a restaurant or hotel. I didn’t think too much about “Chez Pierrot,” set back from the road, with a corral off to the side containing a dozen-or-so of the barrel-chested, short-legged bay horses that are found in Corsica. My wife mentioned to her father about my curiosity about Chez Pierrot. It turns out that he had never met Pierrot (whose full name is Pierrot Milanini), but he had heard of him and the auberge that he had been running since 1971. Which is how we came to have lunch there this August. And which is how I met one of the last authentic montagnards (“mountain men”) on the island.
You enter Chez Pierrot and the first thing that strikes you is how low the ceiling is. But it makes sense when you spot Milanini, who, even with his boots on, is not much more than five-feet tall. But with his broad chest, and bowed legs (the result, no doubt, of spending so many years on the back of a horse), he appears to be almost wide as he is tall. He’s a miniature mountain, a force of nature with his grizzled features, prominent nose and bushy grey beard. Lining the room’s walls are dozens of photos with Milanini holding a rifle or puffing on a cigar like a tiny Ernest Hemmingway with his foot on some downed trophy on safari in some exotic locale. What he lacks in stature, Milanini makes up in charm and charisma.
He speaks with obvious affection about his “Corsican horses” that carry auberge guests and other tourists throughout the high plateau. He offers simple food that nourishes your appetite with its natural flavors. Delicately perfumed charcuterie made from his free-range pigs, tasty beans and vegetables from his garden, and thick-cut slices of pork are served family style on the long wooden tables. The rough-cut benches that line each side of the tables are made from Corsican chestnut trees. There’s a chimney at the side of the room, unlit, because it is summer, but, in the winter, when the snow covers those strange nearby rock formations, it must be a welcome sight.
Eating such an honest, simple—but delicious, meal, with its rough-crust bread, accompanied with red wine from the Ajaccio appellation, and preceded and followed with, respectively, homemade wine infused with the leaves of the hawthorn tree and a healthy dose of pure alcohol, and eau de vie made from elderberries, nourishes both body and soul.
As long as real montagnards like Pierrot Milanini exist, I’m confident that Corsica will never be mistaken for Disneyland, or, for that matter, Versailles. Long may he ride tall in the saddle.
Auberge Chez Pierrot, Hameau de Jallicu, Quenza; Tel/Fax: +33 (0)4 95 78 63 21