The sun has been shining for several hours, its rays just clearing the summit of the Haute-Corse mountains. Hundreds of kilometres from his native Brittany, Yann Le Scavarec follows the Désert des Agriates towards the famous Saleccia beach and the maquis dominating the Saint-Florent bay. The Roya chef halts close to the D81, which stretches out in the direction of L'Île-Rousse in the shadow of the Saint-Pancrace de Casta Chapel. Trailed by a curious hound, he raises the rickety barrier formed of old branches and plunges into the wilderness, which has not been abandoned by all. It is September now and the maquis is less verdant than in April. Yellow and orange are the dominant colours but a herb holds onto its little green leaves. "Here, we'll find Nepeta, a typical herb from the Corsican maquis that I use freely in my cooking."
Tonight, the chef is set to brighten up his Corsican veal with this Nepeta, which "gives the meat a lovely flavour". "I also use it to make sorbets and maquis syrup. I use it as a seasoning and alone for marinades. That's how I concoct my dishes in Corsica: I get inspired and draw the best from my environment. These herbs give my cuisine an identity that is not Corsican cuisine but personal cuisine based on Corsican products."
A little further ahead, Yann bends down. He sources dry herbs and gathers a few before moving them gently under his nose. Concentrating, he rises and casts an eye over the morning landscape before leaving the field. "It's important to realise how lucky we are to live and cook here."
A little earlier in the day, the Breton chef, who arrived in 2005 with his wife Séverine—co-manager of the La Roya restaurant with her husband—paid a visit to organic Corsican veal farmer Dominique Leccia in Oletta, and pork butcher and seasoner Pascal Flori in Murato. The environment plays an essential role in each encounter. "Raised on the milk of their mothers, the Oletta striped Corsican veal later feed on fodder and whatever they find when they're 1000 metres up in the mountains! A diet of maquis vegetation, acorns, chestnuts and berries sometimes gives the flesh a slightly purple hue!"
Higher up in the town of Murato, Pascal Flori's concrete curing cellars are a chance to delve seven metres underground into a section of the Corsican subsoil. "With openings to the outside, we allow the natural elements to do their work. My lonzu, coppa, prisuttu and figatelli ham is thus imbued with Corsica and its character after a curing process that lasts for up to 60 months." This is also the case for bulagna; a very fatty and exceptionally popular meat taken from the pig's throat. Tomorrow, Yann Le Scavarec will visit Sandrine Marfisi in search of olive oils. We head to the Cap this time. "Located in the Patrimonio region, her land tumbles directly down to the sea and her olive trees enjoy a purifying sea spray and limestone soil with good drainage. I like her AOP Corsican olive oil because it is fruitier and more herbaceous and gentle than other types. She normally uses the Corsican variety, capanaccia."
Brittany-born Yann Le Scavarec is an indispensable gastronomic guide in Haute-Corse. And he hasn't even mentioned his 'family' collections of water mint that he then uses in his sorbets, or the Corsican citrons, lemons and mandarins that he preserves during winter when the restaurant is closed. "I add them sparingly, using them as a condiment on fish such as dentex, and desserts with iced nougat." Nor has he mentioned the Cabri kid more tender than milk lamb marinated in myrtle and on offer at Easter at the starred La Roya restaurant. He may have spoken about fish. And how apt to talk about fish in a seafront restaurant!
Before dissecting a few key recipes, the chef picks up his tray of whole corb, sea bream, red scorpionfish and dentex. "I cook the fish of the day for the customers. They choose their fish and I prepare it in two ways. The weather and the customers' desires will determine whether the fish is prepared as a fillet, tartare or carpaccio." This evening, Yann and his team are cooking up some of the season's highlights. Line-caught sea bass risotto with mint, tarragon oil John Dory with balsamic iced red berries, red mullet embellished with a parmesan curd, black olive and mascarpone lozenges, small herbs and dried tomatoes.
The produce is as impeccably fresh as ever, enhanced by wonderful creativity and sophisticated technique acquired at Charles Barrier in Tours among other places. "Here, the fish is poached in olive oil. I will then sprinkle it with pink peppercorn butter and steam cook it to retain the pearlescent sheen of the flesh. My cuisine has become more modern and understated over time. What I enjoy now is starting from a main base, coordinating it with something and finding the little extra that makes all the difference. Like this balsamic vinegar with red berries and the John Dory." So it is no surprise that the Relais du Silence hotel has comprised a starred restaurant for six years now. The restaurant and hotel, with its 29 rooms and 4 suites, work together in perfect harmony, in sync with their environment. Propped up by the maquis, turned to the sea.
What if you were...Yann Le Scavarec
What if you were a dish?
Something that hasn't been invented yet.
What if you were a producer?
A trader of spices and rare herbs
What if you were a gourmet memory of your childhood?
A Breton galette.
And if you were a cuisine of the future?
Open and shared.
What if you were a cooking tip?
Something that would help me to continually reinvent my cuisine.
And if you were a product?
What if you were a region, a country or a city?
What if you were another chef?
What if you were a character (real or fictitious)?
What if you were an art?
What if you were a customer, what would you expect from your restaurant?
To have a great time there.