Very few tastes persist as potently as a mouthful of Casu Marzu. An acquired taste to be sure. Something is wiggling around inside, responsible for this taste that many Sardinians and a few curious travelers love.
Maggots and us
I’m unsure of many things more viscerally disgusting than the existence of maggots. Human evolution has for thousands of years associated these wriggling creatures with diseases, infection, and decaying corpses. When we see maggots in food, we are naturally disgusted. Incredibly, in Sardinia, people used to risk hefty fines to get hold of a maggot-infested delicacy cheese, casu marzu.
A true Sardinian delicacy
If you placed this cheese in front of most Sardinians, there would go mad for it, for many, it’s difficult to stop once they get a taste. Its enjoyed by children and the elderly across the island, going by different local names depending on the region. Previously, the cheese was an accident, made possible when a fly decides to borough into a mature Pecorino (sheep cheese). But today, it’s made more purposefully. Larvae toil tirelessly at the heart of the cheese to turn it into a creamy, complex and sort-after delicacy. Children in Sardinia explained that the worms are born into the casu marzu, enjoying to eat the inside, meaning they are practically made up of cheese. Which I guess is true although a little misleading. Allowing children to eat cheese and suppress instincts.
Casu marzu has been passed down for generations, enjoyed by the shepherds of the past and Sardinians today. Methods have changed, to lead the flys into the cheese intentionally. Some makers even add small amounts of milk or extra virgin olive oil to the center to stimulate the process.
Patience, flys, and darkness – How to make Casu Marzu?
The best time to produce casu marzu is during the spring and summer months. It can take three to six months to make. The traditional method goes as follows: After turning sheep’s milk into a pecorino cheese, it is left out, with time becoming more desirable to dairy flys (philophila casei) as it ages, typically three weeks. Once, the fly’s borough themselves inside, they begin to colonize the cheese laying larvae. Now occurs the main show lasting a few months, as the worms slowly digest and excrete the cheese. Once the heart of the cheese is re-digested, the hardtop layer is cut away, revealing the creamy contents inside before being exposed to the sun to remove the larvae before it is ready to eat.
Is it dangerous?
In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records declared casu marzu “the most dangerous cheese in the world” how true is this? In some circumstances, when eating the cheese, the larvae are alive. You must chew entirely to kill any before they are digested. If they manage to survive and make it to the intestine, they could cause severe stomach and digestive issues. Although, we cannot be sure that anyone has suffered any damage as the result of eating this cheese. There may be some digestive problems, but remember that it is a dense cheese and it usually comes at the end of a big meal. With all spicy, pungent, and fatty foods, it is always better to eat small portions. If you are going to try the cheese, then eat in in small pieces, if there is anything that genuinely worries you then don’t eat it. When needing flies in a recipe, there are many unhygienic factors. Farmers have been developing a way to make the cheese in the most hygienic way using flies that haven’t come in to contact with anything else. Professor of Food Microbiology at the University of Sassari, Antonio Farris wrote, “I don’t understand how our rotten cheese can be considered dangerous if it is made properly, it has never hurt anyone.”
How does it taste?
It is the taste of the forbidden for those of us not growing up with this cheese; we only hear stories and read clickbait articles that describe how dangerous, disgusting, and illegal it is. To give you some understanding of the taste, a cheese blogger from the World According to Cheese said, “It was strong, challenging, but actually very enjoyable. It hinted of gorgonzola and black pepper but left a thick film in my mouth.” Sardinians often pair the cheese with a piece of pane Carasau and a glass of red Cannonau, a regional wine with enough richness to act as a counterbalance.
Close your eyes, jumping maggots
A good Casu Marzu should have over 1000 larvae inside. Eaten alive with the cheese. A dead colony could signal that the cheese has gone very bad. They do like to jump up, just before they are going to be crushed by teeth or dissolved in the stomach. So you should close your eyes to fully experience the fullness of the taste, with complete concentration, and to keep them from landing in your eyes. The cheese left in the sun, the maggots preferring the dark place, choose to leave the cheese in search of shade. Another method to remove the worm is to place a piece of the cheese in a paper bag. Shake it around, to disturb the larvae from their sleep, forcing them to leap out. Makes a popping sound in the bag, every time a worm leaves, when the popping stops, the cheese is ready, kind of like popcorn.
Past encounters with the law
For many years because of the European Union food hygiene health regulations, the cheese was made illegal, prohibiting the production, marketing, and consuming. Thus creating a black market for the cheese in Sardinia, making it hard to come by. The price increased to double that of a roll of pecorino. Sardinians and taste hunters risked substantial fines to get their hands on this worm filled cheese. It shows how important this food is to the traditional Sardinian cuisine. For the Sardinians to safeguard the cheese, it was added to the list of traditional Italian agriculture products, of Italy, along with 4,000 other traditional products. This certification grants producers the ability to stray from the standard sanitary regulations.
My experiences with the ‘rotten cheese.’
On three occasions this traditional Sardinian cheese has found its way to me. The first time I tried the cheese, I didn’t understand Italian very well, either fully comprehend what made this cheese so special. Once, the cheese had touched my tongue, and I knew this was no ordinary cheese. It was the most overpowering and challenging taste experience. Luckily, there was red wine nearby to distract from the endless aftertaste. My brain had to process this new flavor. If I’m honest, I did notice a hint in the taste of the cheese that was enjoyable, but this was still overshadowed during my first time trying this cheese.
After my first encounter with Casu Marzu, I learned the full story of how this cheese came to be. About the live maggots inside that decompose this cheese, by slowly processing it through their systems, to transform a mature Pecorino into a softer textured delicacy. I couldn’t believe that this existed. But, even armed with this knowledge, I had to try it again when it made itself known at the local bar. A farmer came in and places that casu marzu on the bar table and began to cut the cheese. He shared it with everyone. The taste hit me once again, but I was able to control it by being aware of what to expect. I have to say I did enjoy it. The next time would be at lunch after helping a local farmer with his grape harvest. By now, I had familiarised myself and can understand why it is known as a delicacy. Although, I wouldn’t go out of my way to source this cheese. It is a cheese to be eaten rarely, reserved for special occasions.