Eating the Rare Sardinian Delicacy of Maggot-Infested Cheese
In the spirit of, “I may never pass this way again,” I could not leave Sardinia without first having eaten casu marzu–the rare and illegal delicacy of maggot-infested cheese. What could go wrong?
Translation first: Casu marzu in Italian literally means, “putrid, rotten cheese.” The beauty of the Italian language is that it is direct; Italians say exactly what they mean. Casu marzu is not a “fragrant” cheese or a “bold” cheese. Casu marzu is a decomposing cheese. It is crawling with worms. And Italians will risk breaking the law just to get a taste of it.
The creation of a fine casu marzu begins normally enough as a classic sheep’s milk pecorino. Then the process gets a little weird. The cheese is left outside in the heat of summer with part of the rind removed. This attracts the cheese fly, Piophilidae, which can lay more than 500 eggs at one time. The larvae hatch and emerge as translucent white worms eating through the cheese. The process then goes from fermentation to a stage of decomposition, brought about by the acid from the maggots’ digestive system breaking down the cheese fats. The cheese texture becomes soft and creates a weeping liquid called làgrimas–teardrops. By the time it is ready for consumption, a typical casu marzu will contain thousands of maggots.
When I first asked about casu marzu, the local formaggiaio in Carloforte wagged his finger at me and then turned away. A street vendor was more forthcoming. “There is an open market on Wednesday,” he said. “Follow your nose.” At the open market, there were several cheese vendors. One said, in English, “Casu marzu? Of course. We have.” When he showed me the cheese, I asked where the worms were. “Ah,” he said, “the worms were here, but now they have gone away.” Casu marzu is considered by many Sardinians to be unsafe to eat when the maggots in the cheese have died.
Another cheese vendor, working out of the back of a truck, was cautiously watching our exchange. That’s the guy, I thought.
When I asked him for casu marzu he looked to his right, then looked to his left, and said, “Sei la polizia?” I laughed, “Do I look like the police?” He laughed and pulled out a white plastic construction bucket he had hidden under a table near his truck. When he took the towel off the top of the bucket it was filled with wheels of foul-smelling cheese crawling with worms. “I’ll buy a half-kilo,” I said, “but please hold the cheese in your hands so that I can make a photograph.” His face went serious. He shook his head no and then held out his arms with his wrists crossed like he was in handcuffs. “No photo,” he said. “Formaggio, si. Io, no.”
Casu marzu presents an interesting paradox for Italian cheese aficionados. It has been considered illegal by the Italian government since 1962, due to laws that prohibit the consumption of food infected by parasites. Those who sell casu marzu can face fines up to €50,000. European regulators in 2002 reinforced the law making the cheese illegal not only in Italy but also in all the common EU markets. Casu marzu is also illegal in the United States.
The cheese remains a revered delicacy. Despite official health concerns, Sardinians consider casu marzu safe. (Sardinia has the highest percentage of people living to 100 years or beyond. The proportion of centenarians in the population is twice the rate considered normal for the rest of the world.) Also, as a traditional product of Sardinia, it is locally protected, although it still remains available only on the black market. There is, however, a formal proposal pending before the EU to give casu marzu DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status like other cheeses and fine wines.
So what is it like to eat cheese infested with worms? You had better enjoy eating strong cheese, and cover your eyes. Casu marzu has the taste and texture of aged gorgonzola, but it moves. Writer Kara Goldfarb describes it best:
“When eating the cheese, one is meant to close their eyes. It’s not to avoid looking at the maggots as you eat them but to protect your eyes from them. When bothered, the maggots will jump up, sometimes going as high as six inches. Next tip, it is imperative for one to properly chew and kill the maggots before swallowing. Otherwise, they can live in the body and rip holes through the intestines… The next step is less of a safety precaution and more of a way to just enhance the culinary experience. It’s advised to enjoy the casu marzu with a moistened flatbread. It also pairs well with a glass of strong red wine. Potentially because the two go well together, possibly because of the added liquid courage.”
In the end, being able to taste casu marzu is a cultural experience that I consider a necessity of travel. I remember eating the fruit durian when I was sailing through Sumatra. It smelled like raw sewage but tasted like a rich custard. Years ago, in a no-name restaurant in the Chinese ghetto off Tiananmen Square, I asked for the house specialty and was served a bull’s penis. These are the things that make our journeys rewarding.
“Maggot Cheese,” Gordon Ramsey, https://youtu.be/vZ_-JzM-YQg
“Casu Marzu Cheese Is Dangerous, Illegal, And Filled With Maggots,” ATI, Kara Goldfarb
“Cazu Martzu,” Wikipedia
“Most Rotten Cheese,” The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Most Disgusting, Hideous, Inept, and Dangerous People, Places, and Things on Earth, Mark Frauenfelder
Sailing is not just about the wind and the sea; equally important are the places to which this boat takes me.
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2021
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