Corsican Corsets & Cheese

“Ahhh Corsica, when one is tired of Corsica one of tired of life.” Robert Milton Boarstead muttered those eternal words one summer vacation as he dived into the crystal clear waters of Napoleon Bay which separates Corsica from the Dutch mainland.

Corsica is most famous for its specialty cheeses, especially Vieux Fromage de Nob, the world’s most expensive cheese, at $457 an ounce.What makes Vieux Fromage de Nob so expensive, apart from having a posh name, being Corsican and having gullible people part with their cash, is the actual process of creating this delicacy.

The process starts with the milking ceremony. It’s a somewhat festive occasion. The chosen cow, which must be three years old, pure white, hornless and a virgin, is led through the streets of Corsica’s cheese making capital, Cedez les Passage, decorated with garlands and ribbons.

The town milker readies to squirt. (Dennis Jarvis / flickr)
The town milker readies to squirt. (Dennis Jarvis / flickr)

The town milker, a ceremonial position, takes up his position on a special gold three legged milking stool and readies himself for the cows udders.

The onlookers cheer as the cow comes to a stop and the milker grabs hold of the cow’s udders and squeezes, calling after every squeeze and tug “grosse salope du pis.” The crowd repeats this and listen as the milk squirts and splashes into the pail.

Only four squeezes are allowed. The milk that is collected is then sent away for processing.

Because cows can’t be trusted to behave themselves ahead of time a cork is inserted into the cow’s rectum so that it cannot defecate or pass wind. The ceremony of the uncorking is now performed and the crowd retreats to a safe distance.

The cow, who has been blocked for over an hour, then lets rip and those unfortunate to get caught in a crosswind can find themselves covered in manure or semi-gassed by cow fart. Some say it’s good luck and the residue from the cow is collected and sold in Paris boutiques and by a skin rejuvenator.

More money cha-ching.

The milk is left in the sun for about a month until it is rancid. Then it is smoked and churned like butter until a fine vaguely green slop is produced. The slop is divided into 10 smaller containers and taken to nearby caves where it will sit for three years ‘maturing’.

Cheese-maturing cave, Corsica. (Eclipsa / Wiki Commons)
Cheese-maturing cave, Corsica. (Eclipsa / Wiki Commons)

The smell is horrendous. Traditionally the town arsenal and treasury were housed in the same caves and the smell was said to ward off even the boldest of thieves. In 1958 the town was left bankrupt and defenseless when thieves walked in with gas masks and stole everything in sight including 10 mature cheeses.

At the time the cheese is placed in the maturing cave, three town’s women, known as the sisters-in-cheese, are presented with special corsets.

One of the town's women proudly displays the corset she will wear for the years. (Greyloch /flickr)
One of the town’s women proudly displays the corset she will wear for the years. (Greyloch /flickr)

They will wear these corsets for three years, never taking them off and never washing. This is a big honor, usually given to spinsters and widows. These women will be placed in a house on the outskirts of Cedez les Passage and remain inside for the duration. They will be fed and looked after by the locals who leave food and water in special boxes about a mile from the house. One amazing fact we learned is that if one of the sisters should die in the three year period her corset would not be removed.

On August 27, the mayor of the town appoints the high cheeseman to collect the 10 cheeses from the caves.

Then the high cheeseman will walk to the house and release the sisters-in-cheese.

Together they will walk to a secluded beach where the sisters will disrobe, wash and dress in fresh clothes. The discarded corsets are collected and cut into strips, if a sister has died her corset is now removed and added to the others. These strips form the outer packaging of the cheese.

The high cheeseman then brings the cheese and the corsets to the center of town where a table is set up for packing the cheese. The cheeses are wrapped in the corset strips, stamped with the town’s coat of arms and placed in a box for transportation to Paris and then onward to the luxury cheese shops of the world.

So the remaining question is what does this cheese taste like? It tastes like Vieux Fromage de Nob.

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