“They make the best cheese ice cream in St Florent,” Anthony tells us, pointing to a shop doing a brisk trade.
“Really?” I'm only half listening. Anthony's 4x4 is heading straight for an opening between two buildings which looks as though it's a few inches narrower than the car. I involuntarily breathe in. The car breezes through without incident.
I breathe out again... slowly, then the penny drops.
“Did you just say cheese ice cream?”
CHEESE ICE CREAM
Two sultry nights later I'm arranging a tub of brocciu ice cream on a wall overlooking the harbour, trying to capture twinkling seafront lights on the smooth black water in the shot. A couple linking arms (St Florent is a romantic place) pass behind me quietly sniggering. Photographing a tub of ice cream must look odd to people who don't know the 'why'. I'm used to it. I often hear sniggers in restaurants as I loom over food, camera lens extended.
Brocciu is Corsica's signature cheese, a distinctive soft variety made from ewe or goat's milk whey which turns up as an ingredient in pastas, pastries and ice cream. It's creamy and ecstatically delicious. Anthony was spot on: Gelateria de Saint Florent serves exceptional cheese ice cream.
Anthony, originally hailing from the French mainland, is a font of knowledge about all things Corsican. Another of his recommendations is biera castagna – chestnut beer.
After walking a route along St Florent's coast, climbing and descending to cerulean cove after cerulean cove, each seemingly more breathtakingly perfect than the last, we emerge onto a long, sandy beach which stretches to, and beyond, the Hotel La Roya where we're staying. Ending a walk barefoot with warm but refreshing water kissing the toes is a rare treat. Before heading to the hotel we veer from the water's edge, ducking under a low-flying Zodiac (yes, you read that right) to cross the sand to a beach café where a grandmère raises anticipation to almost unbearable levels by bringing glasses and bottles of beer one at a time, slowly.
Reward beer (that first glass after a long walk) is especially sweet at the best of times, but when it's a dark and smoky beauty like biera Corsa served with sand, sea and historic St Florent in the background it tastes like nectar from the gods.
MOULES ET FRITES
We don't need expert advice to tell us about a classic dish found throughout Corsica's coastal towns, as nearly every restaurant has a blackboard with 'moules frites' scrawled on it. Whereas restaurants with harbour views are popular with visitors everywhere, we like backstreets. We have a theory that restaurants work a bit harder to keep custom when they're not in a prime location. Although saying Le Bistro de la Vista isn't in a prime location when it lies on a charmer of a street leading to a pearl of a square, Place Doria, is clearly relative. The moules glisten, their gaping shells revealing succulent orange treasures, the chips are crunchy and the white wine is crisp, cooled by a container which looks like a designer shopping bag. C'est magnifique.
It's back to Anthony's recommendations for another Corse favourite, wild boar; although Anthony confesses Corsica's wild boar aren't actually that wild as they've been calmed down by numerous romantic dalliances with domestic pigs over the years. On another backstreet, Rue Clemenceau in Calvi, we squeeze into the last free table at buzzing Via Marine, hemmed in intimately between stacks of wooden vin boxes and serenaded by intoxicating aromas. We've chosen it because it has civet de sanglier, a slow-cooked wild boar stew flavoured by garlic, onions, carrots, wine and fennel. Mine arrives with a brace of savoury polenta cakes and served in a frying pan. It's one of those dishes where you hope it's as good as it looks. It isn't, it's better.
FINALLY, MORE CHEESE
In the leafy courtyard of L'Osteria in rural Olmi Cappella what little knowledge we have of the French language deserts us. As we struggle to interpret the menu, two elegant ladies, the only other 'lunchers' in the restaurant, come to our assistance; one of them wears a summery frock the exact shade of raspberry as the old Citroen CV4 she parked beside the village church opposite. When I say 'come to our assistance' I mean they order dishes for us; we're virtually non-participating bystanders, insisting we try the excellent beignets au fromage – chestnut flour balls which are filled with cheese and deep fried. Sometimes it pays to just go with the local flow. The golden beignets are savoury sensations, addictively good and extremely filling... something we 'rediscover' on a number of occasions.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of seeking out the island's specialities is they often seem to be accompanied by a uniquely Corse experience which adds that delightful je ne sais quoi to the dining experience.