Casu marzu: The world’s ‘most dangerous’ cheese
(CNN) – The Italian island of Sardinia lies in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea and looks out over Italy from afar. Surrounded by 1,849 kilometers of coastline with white sandy beaches and emerald green water, the island’s inland landscape quickly rises to hills and impenetrable mountains.
And within these angular curves, shepherds produce casu marzu, a maggot-infested cheese that the 2009 Guinness World Record declared the most dangerous cheese in the world.
Cheese skipper flies, piophila casei, lay their eggs in cracks that form in cheese, usually for sardo, the island’s salty pecorino.
Maggots hatch, make their way through the paste, digesting proteins and turning the product into a soft, creamy cheese.
Then the cheese merchant opens the top – which is almost untouched by maggots – to pull out a spoonful of the creamy delicacy.
It’s not a moment for the faint of heart. At this point the maggots begin to frantically wriggle inside.
Some locals spin the cheese through a centrifuge to fuse the maggots with the cheese. Others like it au naturel. You open your mouth and eat everything.
Casu Marzu is made from sheep’s milk.
Sean Gallup / Getty Images
If you are able to overcome understandable disgust, Marzu has an intense flavor with memories of the Mediterranean pastures and a tangy aftertaste that lasts for hours.
Some say it is an aphrodisiac. Others say it could be dangerous to human health as maggots could survive the bite and cause myiasis, micro-perforations in the intestines, but no such case has been linked to Casu Marzu as yet.
“The maggot infestation is the magic and joy of this cheese,” says Paolo Solinas, a 29-year-old Sardinian restaurateur.
He says that some Sardinians flinch at the thought of Casu Marzu, but others who grew up on a lifetime of salty pecorino unabashedly love its strong flavors.
“Some shepherds see cheese as a unique personal treat that only a select few can taste,” adds Solinas.
It is illegal to sell or buy Casu Marzu.
When tourists visit Sardinia, they usually end up in a restaurant that serves porceddu sardo, a slowly roasted suckling pig. Visit bakers selling Pane Carasau, a traditional paper-thin flatbread, and meet shepherds making Fiore Sardo, the island’s pecorino cheese.
However, if you are adventurous enough it is possible to find the Casu Marzu. It shouldn’t be viewed as a strange attraction, but rather a product that keeps an ancient tradition alive and provides clues as to what the future of food might look like.
Giovanni Fancello, a 77-year-old Sardinian journalist and restaurateur, spent his life researching local food history. He traced it back to a time when Sardinia was a province of the Roman Empire.
“Latin was our language, and we can find traces of our archaic cuisine in our dialect,” says Fancello.
The cheese can only be made at certain times of the year if the sheep’s milk is right.
According to Fancello, there were no written records of Sardinian recipes until 1909. At that time, Vittorio Agnetti, a doctor from mainland Modena, traveled to Sardinia and compiled six recipes in a book called “La nuova cucina delle specialità regionali”.
“But we always ate worms,” says Fancello. “Pliny the Elder and Aristotle talked about it.”
Ten other Italian regions have their variant of maggot infested cheese, but while the products are considered unique elsewhere, Casu Marzu is an integral part of Sardinian food culture.
The cheese has different names, such as Casu Becciu, Casu Fattittu, Hasu Muhidu, Formaggio Marcio. Each sub-region of the island has its own way of making them with different types of milk.
“Magic and Supernatural Events”
Foodies inspired by the heroics of chefs like Gordon Ramsay often look for the cheese, says Fancello. “They ask us, ‘How do you make Casu Marzu?’ It is part of our history. We are the sons of this food. It is the result of chance, magic and supernatural events. “
Fancello grew up in the town of Thiesi with his father Sebastiano, a shepherd who made Casu Marzu. Facello led his family’s sheep to pastures around rural Monte Ruju, lost in the clouds where magic was suspected.
He remembers that Casu Marzu was a divine gift for his father. If his cheese weren’t infested with maggots, he’d be desperate. Some of the cheese he produced stayed with the family, while others went to friends or people who asked for it.
Casu Marzu is usually made in late June, when the local sheep’s milk begins to change, when the animals enter their breeding season and the grass dries from the summer heat.
The coastal town of Alghero in Sardnina.
MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images
When a warm sirocco wind blows on the day the cheese is made, the magic of the cheese transformation works even harder. Fancello says it’s because the cheese has a weaker texture, which makes the fly’s job easier.
After three months, the delicacy is ready.
Mario Murrocu, 66, keeps the Casu Marzu traditions alive on his farm, Agriturismo Sa Mandra, near Alghero in northern Sardinia. He also keeps 300 sheep and hosts guests in his trattoria and keeps the Casu Marzu traditions alive.
“They know when a form becomes Casu Marzu,” he says. “You can tell by the unusual spongy texture of the paste,” says Murrocu.
These days, this is less of a godsend than the ideal conditions under which cheese merchants are now securing as many casu marzu as possible. They also found a way to use jars to preserve the cheese, which traditionally didn’t last longer than September for years.
Sardinia’s unusual cheese dates back to Roman times.
Although revered, the legal status of cheese is a gray area.
Casu Marzu is registered as a traditional Sardinian product and is therefore locally protected. Still, it has been classified as illegal by the Italian government since 1962 due to laws prohibiting the consumption of foods infected with parasites.
Those who sell the cheese face heavy fines of up to 50,000 euros, but the Sardinians laugh when asked about the ban on their beloved cheese.
Research shows that consuming them could help reduce carbon dioxide emissions associated with animal husbandry and alleviate the climate crisis. Roberto Flore, the Sardinian director of Skylab FoodLab, the food system change laboratory at the Innovation Center of the Technical University of Denmark, has long studied the concept of insect consumption. For several years he headed the research and development team at the Nordic Food Lab – part of the three Michelin-starred NOMA restaurant – trying to figure out how insects can be included in our diet.
“Many cultures associate the insect with an ingredient,” says Flore. Nevertheless, the Sardinians prefer cheese to maggot and are often appalled at the idea that people in Thailand eat scorpions or crickets.
Flore says he traveled the world to study how different cultures view insects as food, and believes that while psychological barriers make it difficult to radically change eating habits, this consumption is widespread.
In countries like Thailand, the consumption of insects is more common.
PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP via Getty Images
“How do you define edible food?” He says, “Every region of the world has a different way of eating insects.”
He is convinced that Sardinia’s delicacy is safe to eat.
“I don’t think anyone has ever died eating Casu Marzu. If so, they might have been drunk. You know, when you eat it, you drink a lot of wine too.”
Flore hopes that casu marzu will soon lose its secret status and become a symbol of Sardinia – not because of its unusual production, but because it is a symbol of other foods that are now disappearing because they do not suit modern mainstream tastes.
Islanders and researchers hope that the European Union will soon rule in their favor.
Until then, everyone who wants to try it has to inquire about Sardinia.
For those willing to raise concerns about what they are eating, it offers an authentic experience reminiscent of a time when nothing was thrown away and the boundaries of what was or wasn’t edible were less clearly defined.
Cheesemonger Murrocu says locals are appropriately open to the best way to eat casu marzu, but some other local goodies have been known to slide off easier.
“We spread the cheese on a wet slice of Carasau and eat it,” he says. “But you can eat it what you want, as long as there is some Formaggio Marcio and a good Cannonau wine.”