To my Californian ears, Corsica always sounded like one of the most exotic and luxurious destinations on earth.
For years its name has conjured images of bright beaches mixed with European sophistication. And although the reality did not disappoint, it did surprise.
The Englishman and I decided to travel there by ferry from Nice. We got up bright and early and lugged our bags on aboard the giant ship with its bizarre 1970’s décor, and five and a half hours later, we saw the rugged mountains and the inviting beaches of Calvi approaching in the distance.
From there we hopped on the tiny coastal train east to Ile Rousse, named for its red mountains which are slowly eroding into the sea, giving the white sand a light dusting of pink along the shoreline.
We spent a few nights in sleepy Monticello, a tiny little town perched about three miles from the beach in the steep hills above.
Watching the townsmen play boules seemed to be one of the main activities in town, chatting and drinking at the café outside our hotel was the other, which is where The Englishman and I encountered the single most intense cheese experience of our collective lives.
We ordered a cheese plate as we often do, and along with the small triangles of a selection of Corsican cheeses, fig paste, and bread, was a large silver spoon filled with what looked like – and which the meat eater among us mistook for – pate.
Thinking he would rid the plate of the meat so not to offend my vegetarian sensibilities, the Englishman spread a generous dollop of the soft grayish substance on a slice of bread and took a large bite.
I then saw his face twist and contort into expressions first of surprise and then confusion, and then slight panic followed by what could only be pain or disgust.
When he finally swallowed, he looked at me with genuine fear in his eyes and in a gravely serious tone said: “that is not pate.” And then “I think my mouth is going numb.”
I had to see for myself, so I spread a much smaller bit of the stuff on a piece of bread and put it in my mouth. It started out tasting like very strong blue cheese, but the flavor quickly went from pungent to spicy and then seemed to coat my tongue and the inside of my mouth like peanut butter making it sticky before the numbing sensation took over.
We sat there trying to figure out what on earth was in that spoon until a very amused looking woman sitting across from us explained that it was a very old very strong Corsican cheese.
After a bit of research, I have learned that what we ate, is indeed a very old cheese, called Casu Marzu, literally: rotten cheese, and it is a delicacy in Corsica and Sardinia.
But much more than just being old – the cheese is usually aged for at least 10 years – it is also intentionally infested with thousands of maggots, which wriggle around, and eat through the cheese softening it with their digestive acids and helping to move the fermentation into the decomposition phase, before its thought to be ready to consume (not, I might add by medical professionals).
It’s actually thought of as an aphrodisiac, and some men apparently regard eating the cheese with live maggots still in the cheese as a way of strengthening their virility.
I can tell you that had I know what the crumbly mound on the plate was, I would not have been so bold as to put it in my mouth, but what the hell, traveling is all about broadening horizons right?
After recovering from our adventurous eating, and a few days basking in the sun and sea, we picked up a rental car (the most hideous blue monster of a vehicle imaginable) and headed into Corsica’s interior.
If the beaches were stunning, the rocky cliffs, rivers, rock pools, and tiny idyllic villages deep inside the island are near perfection.
My favorite place was the miniscule town of Evisa, who’s friendly population, is in my estimation, likely outnumbered by the many free ranging pigs, snuffling around eating the wildly abundant chataignes that growing throughout the region.
After eating and drinking and photographing our way though the coast and mountains of Corsica, and after more than a few long hot hours on the train back to Nice, it felt good to finally get “home”.
And although it doesn’t quite feel like home yet, I was surprised by how comfortable it felt to get back. And how familiar the streets and shops seemed as we walked the short distance back to the apartment. Homesickness, it seems is safely at bay – for now.