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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:  P&M Single Malt – 7 years

www.corsican-whisky.com

The Book:  The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari

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Islands seem to have a way with whisky — Islay, Jura, Japan. . .Corsica. Maybe being surrounded by water forces distillers to focus, knowing a whole island’s pride is at stake.

THE WHISKY

P&M Single Malt stands bright mahogany in the glass. Sophisticated aromas of citrus and vanilla. In the mouth, tannic measures of caramel and chocolate. Smooth but not sweet, a mouth-rich heat that enlivens the herbal notes. (42% abv)

P&M — sounds rather like a business blend.

In 1996 the Pietra craft brewery opened in Furiani in northeastern Corsica, the creation of Armelle and Dominique Sialelli. Using a unique combination of malt and chestnut flour, the amber Pietra beer proved a big hit. With each of four subsequent releases the brewery went from success to success.

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About the same time, Jean-Claude Venturini founded Mavela, located not far from Aléria, and began distilling fruit-based spirits and liqueurs. It, too, quickly developed a winning reputation. In time Jean-Claude passed the running of the distillery to his eldest son Stefanu.

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In 2001 came an inspired partnership  between P (Pietra) & M (Mavela). A new entrepreneurial enthusiasm about what could be accomplished in Corsica, followed by several trips to distilleries in Scotland and the U.S., led to the creation of the island’s first and (as yet) only whisky. P&M had been born, and so had a distinctive whisky, one that captured the aromas and flavours of the island’s terroir, what is locally referred to as les herbes du maquis.

1170606_604360646269906_953931426_nAt Pietra malt is carefully selected and crushed, before brewing begins using naturally-filtered mountain spring water. This is followed by fermentation with a yeast culture unique to the brewery. The tanks are then transported to Mavela, for distillation in a Holstein still. The concentrated heart of the distillate is separated out from the head and tail, and stored for maturation in select French oak casks that previously held muscat wine from Domaine Gentile. Two blends and this seven-year aged malt have been the result.

The single malt in particular has gained a great deal of attention, including 95 big ones from Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible of 2014, just ten years after its first production. A jubilant Stefanu Venturini sees it as “the culmination of years of hard work” and confirmation of the choice “to make small batches with unmatched taste.” It has put P&M and Corsica on the whisky map in short order.

THE BOOK

Born in Paris in 1968, Jérôme Ferrari is a writer, translator, and professor of philosophy. After graduating from the Sorbonne, he headed to Corsica, the birthplace of his parents. He taught in the town of Porto-Vecchio for several years before heading off for teaching stints in Algiers and then Abu Dhabi. In 2015 he returned to Corsica, to teach at Lycée Giocante Casabianca in Bastia. He has referred to Corsica as his “natural literary milieu.”

Ferrari is the author of seven novels, two of which have been translated into English (both by Geoffrey Strachan). “Where I Left My Soul” is about the French war in Algeria, the second is set in Corsica. It won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2012, and bears the somewhat peculiar title “The Sermon on the Fall of Rome.”

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Anyone versed in the early history  of Christianity would recall that the original Sermon on the Fall of Rome was preached by St. Augustine in 410 following the sacking of the city by the Alaric and the Goths. It is a reference point for Ferrari and the author uses quotes from Augustine to frame the novel.

The book follows the downfall of another empire of quite a different sort: a long-lived, grimy small-town bar whose manager suddenly quits and disappears without a trace. The owner hires one replacement, then another, both of whom fail miserably. It’s feeling rather like “the plagues of Egypt.” Finally she lands Matthieu and Libero, a pair of childhood friends ready and eager to abandon their studies of philosophy in Paris for a chance to return home to Corsica. And to find life’s calling in the revival of the struggling watering hole. What defeats some is a godsend for others, and so the bar, with a string of attractive young female employees and a smooth-tongued musician, quickly turns into a bustling social hot spot.

Running parallel to the bar scene is the story of Matthieu’s grandfather, Marcel Antonneti, once an administrator in French West Africa. It is Marcel who sets the story in a broader, multi-generational context, while at the same time delving into Corsica’s past and that of France, in particular the collapse of the country’s colonial empire. It is in the contrast of Ferrari’s storytelling that his writing truly shines.

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In the end, like the French empire, the bar self-destructs. As Ferrari puts it, “the same mechanism can apply to empires, a village bar or to the hearts of men.” St. Augustine, French West Africa, a bar in Corsica, saints and sinners, no matter when or where, they have their common ground. Only an exceptional writer could make perfect sense of bringing them together.

 

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