Sardanian Maggot Cheese (Casu Marzu) – you got it right

Here is a specialty of Sardinia Italy that I leave for braver souls than me – and I’ll try about anything.  It may be a culinary delight, but my Western sensibilities are squealing in disbelief.  Casu Marzu, also known as the walking cheese, is not your average cheese lover’s cheese. The name of this Sardinian specialty literally translates to “rotten cheese.” If that name does not scare you away, how about a few thousand wriggling maggots?  Yes, maggots… thousands of them, so many that you have to protect your eyes when eating this cheese as they like to jump about.  Their  jumping is a good thing, you want that, because if they’re not moving that means the cheese is bad – decayed to a point too toxic for humans.

Casu Marzu is a Italian traditional cheese produced only on Sardinia from Pecorino (Fiore Sardo) cheese.  Pecorino is typically soaked in brine, smoked, and left to ripen in the cellars of central Sardinia. But to produce Casu Marzu, cheese makers set the Pecorino Sardo outside – uncovered – so flies (the Piophila casei, if you must know) better access to lay their eggs inside of it. The cheese emerged through centuries of artisan production using first wild, (read by accident) and now deliberate, addition of larvae from the cheese fly which can also found in other high protein/high cholesterol foods like smoked meats and dried fish.  Enzymes produced by the larvae confers to the cheese a uniquely viscous texture and pungent taste.

As the eggs hatch into thousands of white, transparent maggots, they feed on the cheese, producing enzymes that promote fermentation and cause the fats in the Casu Marzu to decompose.  Sometimes, cuts are made into the rind of Pecorino Sardo and already-hatched maggots are introduced into the cheese; accelerating the process.

How does Casu Marzu taste?

Casu Marzu is a local delicacy in very high demand. It is supposedly a very pungent, super soft cheese that oozes tears (lagrima), and tends to burn the brave taster’s tongue.  I had a French cheese burn my tongue, but no maggots were involved.

Some say Casu Marzu tastes like an extremely ripe Gorgonzola – of course, minus the savory blue veins and with the addition of a whole lot of larva. One piece of Casu Marzu may be populated by thousands of (living) maggots.

Is Casu Marzu dangerous?

Casu Marzu has been declared illegal and non-compliant with EU hygenic standards. It is banned by Italian health laws and not sold in shops. In addition to numerous anecdotal reports of allergic reaction (including burning, crawling skin sensations that last for days), there is a risk for enteric myiasis, or intestinal larval infection.

Once ingested, it’s possible for the Piophila casei larvae to pass through the human stomach without dying (sometimes stomach acids just is not enough). In that case, the maggots make themselves at home in the intestines for awhile. They can cause serious lesions through intestinal walls, resulting in, shall we say, some potentially nasty problems.

Despite the health warnings, people in Sardinia say they’ve eaten Casu Marzu for hundreds of years with nary a problem. In fact, the Italian cheese is often brought out for special occasions like birthdays, bachelor parties, and weddings. According to folklore, Casu Marzu is even an aphrodisiac.  Why are these sorts of foods always aphrodisiacs?

Casu Marzu buying & serving tips

Casu Marzu cannot be legally sold in Italy, but shepherds produce it in small quantities for the black market. It’s often kept under the table, for only the most trusted customers. Selling or serving is punishable by a hefty fine.

If you find yourself with strong stomach and a local Sardinian connection, Casu Marzu may be procured – for about twice the price per pound as regular Pecorino. It’s generally served with thin slices of bread (pane carasau) and a strong, red wine called Cannonau.

One final note of caution, some people wear eye protection when eating Casu Marzu: the maggots are known to jump as high as six inches and of course they launch themselves straight for the eater’s eyes.  At a minimum, make a maggot sandwich and shield your eyes with your hand, or wear goggles as you take a bite.

Buono appetito!  I elected not to include a recipe.

Another post in a series called, Food that makes you say – “huh”

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16 comments for “Sardanian Maggot Cheese (Casu Marzu) – you got it right

  1. April 16, 2009 at 10:50 PM

    That’s one dangerous cheese and it’s illegal, too?! Who knew a dairy product can fall into that category. I don’t know how I feel about this cheese especially with the maggots. I love Italy, but more power to those who can handle it.

  2. oysterculture
    April 16, 2009 at 11:09 PM

    Bread + Butter, Agreed, I think I’ll pass on this experience and leave it to those with tougher constitutions.

  3. foodgal
    April 16, 2009 at 11:25 PM

    Uh, let me get this straight: Cheese that has maggots, overwhelming stench, possible allergic reactions, potential for killer lesions, and oh, you need to wear eye protection while eating it, too? I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to eating, but even I think I’ll have to pass on this one. Pass the burrata instead, please.

  4. April 17, 2009 at 10:22 AM

    I want to try it! I guess I will have to wait until I get to go to Sardinia one day.

  5. April 17, 2009 at 4:52 PM

    You know, I actually wanted to try this until I got to the part about the intestinal larval infection. I guess that’s where I draw the line – LOL!

    And requiring eye protection – too much!!!

    oysterculture, I think maybe you need to take over my Weird Food Wednesdays post for me. I can’t top this!

    5 Star Foodie – good luck to you, and make sure you are updated on your immunizations!

  6. oysterculture
    April 17, 2009 at 5:21 PM

    Hi 5 Star, You’re are a braver woman than me! I am struggling with having to wear eye care protection to consume!

  7. oysterculture
    April 17, 2009 at 5:28 PM

    Hey Phyllis, I am working on a few cheese posts and came across this one and felt compelled to share what I learned besides mentioning this cheese just did not fit into the rest of the cheeses. It deserved its own special mention.

    I could never replace your Weird Wednesdays – no way, but I did check to see if you had written about it, and could not find where you had done so. So I felt safe.

  8. sapuche
    April 18, 2009 at 2:20 AM

    Wow, still having trouble logging onto Word Press. Anyway, about your fascinating post: there’s something ominous merely in the nickname “walking cheese.” There’s also something educational about all of this, but I’m hard-pressed to say that it will be useful to me…since I try to avoid food with wriggling, jumping maggots. 🙂 I’m sure we unwittingly eat foods with larvae of one sort or another in them, as the enzymes they produce are perhaps essential to certain things. But maggots…I just can’t wrap my head around this! As for the aphrodisiac quality of Case Marzu, maybe there’s a correlation between taboo foods, especially ones thought to have impurities, and sex. (I think I read that somewhere.) There’s certainly a lot in this cheese that could be said to lack in purity. But that’s just me as an American talking. This was a real eye-opener for me. Great post!

  9. oysterculture
    April 18, 2009 at 9:45 AM

    Sapuche, Ah, sorry to hear about WordPress issues.

    I thought the reaction people have to this cheese really brings out different cultural norms. At the most basic, logical level, no one should care whether their getting their protein from a steak or a maggot. But people most certainly do care and a big component to that reaction is how and where they were raised.

    I agree with your aphrodisac assesment, but half the time I still suspect someone’s slapped that label on to get a vain fellow to give it a go =)

  10. April 18, 2009 at 10:05 AM

    I saw this in TV once. I’m sorry, but I almost puked my guts out. this is crazy to me, how ppl can enjoy this. I once found maggots in my beloved mangosteens, and could not eat them after that for quite sometime.

  11. April 20, 2009 at 1:18 PM

    OK, wow. This is a little extreme for us. 🙂 BUT we can only say nothing but thanks for bringing this to our attention! Totally unheard of.

  12. dailyspud
    April 25, 2009 at 6:58 PM

    Oh gosh, fascinating, but I think I will leave this one to the Sardinians!

  13. November 4, 2009 at 12:42 AM

    A good story

    GK Chesterton: “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”

    Voila: This book is a poetic view of 30 of the best loved French cheeses with an additional two odes to cheese. Recipes, wine pairing, three short stories and an educational section complete the book.

    From a hectic life in New York City to the peace and glories of the French countryside lead me to be the co-founder of Ten years later with the words of Pierre Androuet hammering on my brain:

    “Cheese is the soul of the soil. It is the purest and most romantic link between humans and the earth.”

    I took pen and paper; many reams later with the midnight oil burning Tasting to Eternity was born and self published.

    I believe cheese and wine lovers should be told about this publication.


  14. admin
    November 9, 2009 at 9:33 AM

    Burp – I understand and you have my complete sympathy!

    Duo – Not sure you should be thanking me =)

    DS – agreed!

    David – Thanks and good info you provided!

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