Casu Marzu: The Cheese That Gives Me The Creeps

There are very few foods that I don’t like, and I take some serious (almost certainly disproportionate) pride in saying that I’ve never yet come across a food that I wouldn’t try. There is, however, a food for which I would have to consider drawing the line, and then leaving that line behind and walking very far away. What would be worth blemishing my perfect record? Surprisingly, the food that scares me is a cheese, and I genuinely don’t know if I would be able to talk myself into sampling a slice.

Casu marzu is a sheeps’ milk cheese indigenous to the Italian island of Sardinia. Usually, the Italians produce cheeses that make my stomach rumble on sight – but not this one. The name literally means “rotten cheese,” which clearly does not sound particularly appetising, but that in itself wouldn’t be enough to put me off. What is it about this cheese that would lead me to put down the knife and back away pronto? It’s creepy. Literally. I mean, creepy-crawly. Casu marzu is riddled with live insect larvae. The locals call it “maggot cheese.” Hungry yet?

So how is this – ahem – delicacy produced? The process begins with a chunk of pecorino sardo, a local sheeps’ milk cheese. Now that, I would eat. I would eat all of it. There would be none left for the maggots, which might be a better situation. I digress.

The pecorino is allowed to mature beyond the usual fermentation stage, to a point where it is essentially decomposing. The producer then deliberately (WHY?!) adds the larvae of the “cheese fly,” known as Piophila casei to scientific types. The acid from the maggots’ digestive systems breaks down the fats in the cheese, rendering the once-hard pecorino soft to the point where, when prodded, a fluid called lagrima seeps out. Lagrima is Sardinian for “tears.” I’ve never known a cheese to cry before, but then, if I were infected with maggots I’d probably weep too. I’d also like to point out that, aside from the stomach-churning issue of the food’s occupants themselves, the cheese that you’re eating has been through their digestive systems. They’ve literally just pooped it out. By the time it’s “ready to eat” (and I am using that phrase very, very loosely) there are thousands of larvae wriggling all over the cheese. Ehhh… yum?

The bit that really gets me is, while the maggots are live and kicking, the cheese is considered a delicacy, but if the cheese is left until the larvae have died, then it’s thought to be unsafe. Go figure. This means that the “best” time to “enjoy” (this article is requiring an awful lot of cynical quotation marks) casu marzu is when it’s full of wriggling worms, pale white and translucent and, let’s face it, pretty gross. It’s up to the individual whether to remove the maggots before eating. There’s a sentence you don’t write every day.

Consuming casu marzu could be considered a risk – it certainly wouldn’t be crazy to suggest that anything which is half-rotted and crawling with maggots is probably past its best. Aside from potential stomach issues, however, there is another more immediate danger. The energetic little larvae can jump up to six inches in the air when threatened (say, when someone’s about to chow down on them), like tiny athletes competing at the high jump for a miniature, repulsive Olympics. To avoid being blinded by their efforts, it’s usual to hold one’s hands over the cheese.

So how should one serve this delicacy? It is most often cut into thin slices and spread on to Sardinian flatbread, or pane carasau, served with a strong red wine. If you prefer not to eat the maggots (you weirdo, you) you can place the cheese in a sealed paper bag. The suffocating larvae will go crazy leaping against the inside of the bag; when they stop, you know they’re dead, and you can remove them from the cheese and go to town on it. It’s kind of like a bag of hideous microwave popcorn.

The cheese itself is apparently so strong it practically burns the mouth so that, after you’ve whetted your (rather strange) appetite, its flavour will possibly linger with you for several hours. No chance you’re repressing that memory any time soon. You may also find yourself a little excited, as casu marzu is believed to be an aphrodisiac by Sardinians. (Seriously though, I think if maggot-ridden cheese is turning you on, you may have to take a long hard look at your sex life.)

I am a firm believer that traditional foods should be respected, protected and preserved. Food is an intrinsic part of any culture, and this must include casu marzu: it’s been made for hundreds of years, and evidently is still in demand in Sardinia, despite the fact that it is technically illegal. I still don’t know if I’d be able to eat it, but if and when I end up in Sardinia, I’ll certainly have to consider it.

What about you? Would you be brave enough to try casu marzu, or is there another food that freaks you out? Leave a comment below.

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