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”