Corsica is not simply an island of stunning mountains and beaches with a wonderful climate. It is a land with a strong natural and cultural identity, peopled by hard-working, passionately involved men and women.
The pig is one of the emblems of the Corsican countryside, and the Corsican language is certainly not lacking in names for this fine animal: porcu, lovia, maghjale, mannarinu, purchettu …
Intensive breeding makes considerable demands on the island’s natural resources and, in the hottest periods, it is in the mountains where the Corsican pig finds food and suitable living conditions. But there is no doubt that in order to develop the breed and gain certification for its by-products, it is essential for it to be clearly definable.
Corsica stands out from other Mediterranean islands for its imposing mantle of woodland, which covers a quarter of its surface area and lends the island a verdant aspect. Albeit unfortunate victims of forest fires every summer, its highlands are characterized by magnificent forests of broad-leaved trees (chestnut, beech and oak) and resinous plants (larches) rise over its heights.
The four-legged inhabitants of these woods rummage about and are inquisitive; just a moment’s distraction is enough to find a snout poking into your rucksack or two piggy trotters on your car hood. In fact, at 400 meters and higher, these pigs, which are ‘semi-wild’, have to root around for chestnuts, acorns, roots and herbs —and they certainly don’t turn up their snouts at a crust of bread from a tourist.
In Corsica’s upland pastures ties between man, animal and mountain are regenerated. It is not unusual to bump into small wild sows and their piglets trotting along round about Castagniccia or Bastelica, or in the Haut Taravo or Quenzaon areas. In summer, the highest spots become the realm of porcs coureurs (‘running pigs’) or ‘domestic wild boars’ and, at the hottest time of the year, these gluttonous crossbreeds run about freely, gleaning their food from the shade of the large chestnut trees. The ‘bread tree’, as the chestnut tree is called here, is the pig’s inseparable companion and its nuts feed both man and beast.
Whether you encounter a Corsican pig while it is sleeping peacefully on its side, in a group of four of five, or trotting happily along the drover tracks, they certainly form part of the landscape. They have been settled on the ‘Isola-della-Bellezza’ for centuries and their family has gradually enlarged, becoming both more numerous and more heterogeneous.
There can even be considerable variation within one herd. Such heterogeneity is mainly due to the natural propensity of any non-selected population to mutate but also due to the various crossings that the breed has undergone.
The Corsican pig has therefore evolved both spontaneously, through its frolics with wild boars (from which it gets its small, straight ears) and deliberately, through mating with selected breeds such as the Large White (from which it gets its concave snout) and the Duroc. Hence its coat may be black, gray, white, red or reddish, and mottled or uniform—everything depends on its antecedents. In any event, there is indisputably a distinct familial air.
Nevertheless, given the current high levels of cross-breeding in the pig population, those involved in the Corsican pig production chain are determined that the local breed should be distinguished from the rest. The Association pour la Reconnaissance du Porc Corse (Association for the Recognition of the Corsican Pig) is working to bring this local, original, rural breed, with its adaptability to difficult living conditions, variations in diet and so on, to the light. The most important thing is to distinguish the pure-breeds from the cross-breeds, determining the real characteristics of the Corsican pig: its elongated, soft snout, the soft trotters typical of a running pig, sloping ears and oval-shaped legs. Defining the Corsican pig breed is also essential for any future DOP for Prisuttu. This dry Corsican cured ham is the jewel in the crown of a range of charcuterie produced in line with ancient traditions and deserves, without any doubt, to be protected.
The ham, the prime part of the maghjale (pig) is one of finest products of Corsican charcuterie, along with coppa (loin), ficatellu (sausage) and other delights.
Even though such traditional charcuterie is produced all over the island, it is at medium altitude, where the green oaks and chestnuts grow, where every valley and every village makes maximum play of its own recipes, its own customs and the secret devices used to distinguish products that, generally speaking, are homogeneous.
At Tunbera the seasonal butchering of the pig is a collective task that is carried out just before Christmas. The occasion is a joyous one, and the atmosphere is heady, imbued with the enticing smell of firewood. There is a continual succession of rites and celebrations, and the local recipes have been handed down since the dawn of time, since the arrival of u mannarinu, the domestic pig. This, for fattening up well, was at times even used as a guard dog before being butchered. For generations the pig, together with the chestnut, was the staple of the indigenous population.
Corsican pig breeders are highly professional and great experts both in rearing their animals in such a singular landscape, and in the processing and drying of their products. Their work involves taking care of the areas where the animals go, which means the chestnut and oak forests, but also selecting the reproducers and then dealing with the litters, fattening up and tidying up the animals reared for charcuterie, the slaughter, the cuts to take, the processing, the maturation and, finally, the part that makes for happy consumers, the sale.
Processing methods remain fairly artisanal. The prisuttu, coppa, lonzu (fillet), bulagna (cheek) and panzeta (belly) are salted, then later desalted, dried, rubbed with pepper and red spices, and smoked over a chestnut fire, conditio sine qua non for a high-quality charcuterie product. The coppe and prisuttu are hung up to dry in a granary, where the mountain air can reach them. The prisutto is eaten last, traditionally after being dried and matured for an average of a year and a half.
Therefore, it has nothing to do with industrial cured hams which are consumed sooner, thanks to the use of products that speed up the loss of liquids, nor with ‘summer charcuterie’, with its reduced drying time, produced for the August tourist flux.
The result of all this is some confusion between the various designations of the products on sale: Corsican charcuterie, Corsican-style charcuterie, farmhouse charcuterie, home-made charcuterie etc. etc.
Despite numerous initiatives and attempts to sort things out, there are still no controls on title and denomination, unlike in other Mediterranean countries, such as Italy or Spain. The application for recognition, submitted in 2002, was initially restricted to specific products, such as prisuttu, coppa and lonzu.
Hence the Syndicat de Défense et de Promotion des Charcuteries de Corse (Union for the Defense and Promotion of Charcuterie from Corsica) is driving hard towards obtaining a DOP, so that breeders/processors can continue to carry out their activities in the mountain areas and so that the quality of this traditional product, which is an integral part of Corsica’s cultural heritage, can be guaranteed. The aim is that, finally, prisuttu, will sit on equal terms with that famous family of Mediterranean cured hams which includes Jamon Iberico pata negra, Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele.
Séverine Petit is a student of International Diplomatic Sciences at the University of Trieste and contributes to the website www.osservatoriobalcani.org.
Adapted by Maureen Ashley