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Casu Marzu: The Maggot Cheese of the Mediterranean
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BY DAVID CLARK

casu.pngCasu Marzu, an illegal Sardinian delicacy, is perhaps the most outrageously foul dairy product in our galaxy. While it’s one thing to eat a cheese that smells like gym socks soaked in milk and left crumpled behind the toilet for weeks; you’ve entered a whole new class of repulsiveness when you bite into Casu Marzu — a putrefied cheese infested with live, wriggling maggots.
To craft this noxious specialty Sardinian cheesemakers encourage the cheese fly, Piophilia casei, a.k.a. the “cheese skipper,” to lay eggs in their pecorino cheeses. (“Pecorino” is a general Italian term for sheep milk’s cheese.) One traditional method is to drill a hole in the block of cheese and slip in a drop of oil to attract the vermin. But the effort isn’t always needed. While cheese skippers originally evolved to scavenge decomposed corpses, they’ve taken enthusiastically to the cured and fermented foods of Homo sapiens. Having discovered a suitable food supply, a mother will lay hundreds of eggs, which then hatch into a vile horde of hungry maggots, eager to devour their host environment.

In the case of Casu Marzu, these maggots — legless and clawless, dragging themselves through by hooked teeth– will release an enzyme during their digestion that causes the pecorino’s fat to putrefy. This unique fermentation process yields a sticky, gluey, gummy mass, still teeming with the worms — and ready to be eaten.

So, Just How Tasty Is It?

Once in your mouth, Casu Marzu is reported to cause more of a sensation than a “taste”: a kind of oral-digestive riot, starting with a strong burn in the mouth. They say it’s good with a full-bodied red, and doubles as an aphrodisiac. But what do “they” know, who eat larvae? As with most things, it’s unclear who to trust. It is advisable when taking a bite of Casu Marzu to cover your eyes. This is not to protect your mind from the nauseating sight; but to protect the eyes themselves from the maggots, who can and do leap up to six inches off the cheese, with malevolent precision. (If you’re too squeamish for such a confrontation, try sealing the cheese in a paper bag. The maggots, deprived of oxygen, will leap off the cheese in an attempt to escape; and when the pitter patter of their dying flops subsides, you can safely eat.)

Some people consider cheese skipper larvae a health risk, and Casu Marzu is actually illegal in Sardinia — but this is not to say it can’t be had. As a black market delicacy it is exchanged amongst family and friends, a favorite for weddings and birthday parties, and sold just under the radar at markets. Often, Sardinian heath officials are themselves fans of the cheese, appreciating its cultural significance, or its taste, or both.
Some Sardinian farmers still believe the medieval idea that maggots spontaneously generate in decaying cheese. This old theory created strong symbolic associations between cheese and death, but also decay and new life. It’s even inspired weird cosmologies (Carlo Ginzburg writes about this in The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller). If you ever have the chance to try Casu Marzu, consider what it means to put the whole Circle of Life in your mouth at once. Then cover your eyes.

[To leave a comment, click here.]

Cheese expert David Clark is guest blogging with us all week! Be sure to check out yesterday’s post on Big Political Cheeses and the Riots They Caused.

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Comments (26)
  1. it is crazy what different parts of the world eat and how we think of them. i wonder if people in other countries think fluffer nutters are gross? go america!!

  2. Ewww. I think I just threw up a little bit in the back of my throat. That is THE most vile thing I have ever heard of.

    Recaptcha: flesh white

  3. Is it good on a cracker?

  4. Hey, with all this mention of cheese, can you guys please publish something relating to my great home state wisconsin, america’s dairyland?

  5. I think that I may safely assure you never to taste this “cheese”, eyes open or closed. Who in the world thinks of these things? And then thinks to eat it? Yech.

  6. You know, sometimes things are illegal for our own good…this is one of those times. I can just imagine the havoc this would wreak on the digestive system. GROSS!

  7. I can’t decide if I kind of want to try it (in the same way that a person might want to try sky-diving), or wish I never knew it existed.

  8. I can’t decide if I kind of want to try it (in the same way that a person might want to try lion taming), or wish I never knew it existed. Either way, my life will never be the same.

  9. All the awfulness of the article was cleaned up when Meta said “fluffernutter”.

    Ah, Fluff and peanut butter, how I love theeeeeeeee…!

  10. I used to claim that I loved all cheese. I was wrong. I did vom a little in my mouth while reading this, and Adrienne, I’m on the side of wishing I never knew it existed. Knowing the blue in blue cheese was mold was hard enough to get past…

  11. Ugh, I was eating lunch when I read that. Note: WAS.

  12. Maybe it wouldnt be so bad if they put the whole thing in a paper bag until all the maggots leapt off…

    and then threw the whole damn thing into the incinerator!!

  13. That’s just about the nastiest thing I’ve ever heard of.

  14. The thing that noone has mentioned yet is that the “unique” gummy part of this is FECES! More specifically MAGGOT FECES WITH MAGGOTS STILL WIGGLING IN IT! Holy crap.

    There’s another reason to suffocate the maggots, too. If you eat live maggots, it doesn’t always kill them and they can bite your insides. Seriously. I learned this from watching Gordon Ramsay try this stuff.

    Culture this and unique that, but this stuff is just plain awful. It makes the entire food dare aspect of Japanese cuisine seem downright tame. I’ve never been so hungry or daring that I would’ve even tried this stuff.

  15. I am extremely grossed out. But, the phrase ‘maggot cheese’ was right in the headline, so I guess I brought this on myself.

  16. RE: Meta - wow, I was just talking with my co-workers about fluffer-nutters they thought it sounded disgusting, but in the same conversation were willing to drink poo-coffee. Google civet poop coffee - it may go well with this cheese.

  17. This is just WRONG on so many levels.

    But then again my wife is from France and can’t stand the smell or taste of peanut butter.

    To each his own I guess. Just don’t make me eat it.

  18. I’m trying to wrap my head around the thought process of the first person to ever try this. “Wow, needing a snack. Cheese sounds pretty good. Damn, it’s covered in maggots. But I am soooo hungry for cheese right now…”

  19. I’ve got something of a reputation for trying weird food — for example, I’ve eaten every type of insect available on the menu at Typhoon in Santa Monica, CA — but THIS? Frankly, it sounds like it started out of desperation; some time waaaaay back in history someone’s cheese cache got spoiled, but they had nothing else to eat, so… Now, people treasure it out of sheer bloody-mindedness. I do understand the impulse, believe me. But even I draw the line somewhere.

  20. I live in Italy and I LOVE Pecorino. I can’t have cow milk, it makes my tummy hurt. I can’t honestly imagine how on earth Pecorino could be made BETTER, so I’ll pass on the maggots for now. The reason the Cheese Fly is a health hazard is because it likes to bite southern Italians, who are known to foam at the mouth and may carry rabies…

  21. Kate: I’m with you on this one. I LOVE Pecorino, especially the soft stuff from Pienza (YUM! not easy to find in the US, though). I will try a bite of just about anything you put in front of me–but this still put me off my lunch!!

    Awesome post for the sheer gross fun, though!

  22. I’ll stick with Vermont cheddar.

  23. Everything tastes better on a Ritz, huh? I have my doubts.

  24. EEEEEEEWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!

    blech! blech!

  25. Just goes to show that there’s no limit to how low human beings will sink.

  26. On a scientific level, I imagine it’s very high in protein!

    *barf*