Food / Drink

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

Say you're in the market for a good old cheesy snack, but the standard cheddar slices just aren't cutting it today. Move aside, Cheez-Its! You are in the mood for something a bit more adventurous, a culinary challenge, a Fromage de résistance… I present to you: Casu Marzu.

This fermented spectacle is writhing with live maggots, oozes a pus-like creamy goo, and not only boasts the title of the World's Most Dangerous Cheese but is illegal in many countries (including the USA).

Where Does Casu Marzu Come From?

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

This stinky cheese originates from the beautiful isle of Sardinia, which is technically a region of Italy and the second-largest island in the entire Mediterranean Sea. Sardinia has a rich cultural history, influenced by communities in Italy and other parts of the Med.

While seafood is understandably the highlight of Sardinian cuisine, casu marzu has gained worldwide infamy. This is, in large, thanks to its status as the World's Most Dangerous Cheese, awarded by Guinness World Records back in 2009, although it was the subject of many a dispute in earlier years, too.

The History Of Casu Marzu

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

Since the bronze age, Sardinians have been making pecorino (the cheese used as a base for casu marzu). This intense, firm cheese is made from sheep's milk. When it is from Sardinia specifically, it is known as Pecorino Sardo, or Fiore Sardo, meaning Sardinian flower.

According to some journalists and food historians, people have been enjoying casu marzu, the maggot-infested delicacy, since as far back as the Roman empire. Despite that, there are no written records of a recipe dated earlier than 1909, as Italian gastronome Giovanni Fancello explains.

"Latin was our language, and it's in our dialect that we find traces of our archaic cuisine. But we have always eaten worms, Pliny the Elder and Aristotle talked about it."

Giovanni Fancello

Despite Sardinians eating this cheese for centuries, the Italian government decided enough was enough, and back in 1962, they deemed it illegal. In 2002, the EU followed suit.

Just two years later, the locals fought back in support of their precious cheese. They cited its historical importance and cultural relevance as reasons for it to be protected under EU law. In 2005, they formed a Committee to Promote Casu Marzu (PDO).

The committee wishes to bestow Sardinia's rotten cheese with a PDO title (Protected Designation of Origin), in the same way Cyprus has done with Halloumi, and the UK has managed with Gloucester and Stilton cheese, amongst others.

They argue that by producing the cheese under controlled conditions, they can safely introduce fly larvae free of harmful bacteria or other contaminants.

How Is Casu Marzu Made?

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

Casu marzu begins its life as an innocent pecorino cheese. For it to join the ranks of dangerous foodstuffs, it needs a bit of help. Enter "piophila casei", aka. cheese fly. These flies lay their eggs into the cheese—and a lot of them, too. Each female fly can produce more than 500 eggs. Impressive, yet still gross.

Now, this may not strike you as something that you would want to happen to a delicious pecorino that you had worked hard to produce. At this stage, you would have already labored a fair amount: boiling the sheep milk with rennet (from a lamb or cow stomach); separating the curd from the whey; putting the curd into molds; draining and salting the final product.

And, you would be right. Depending on who you ask, the original casu marzu was a happy accident (or not so happy). Many years ago, when food hygiene was not a "thing," those sneaky flies made their way into the cheese uninvited.

Nowadays, the locals literally cut open a flap or drill a hole in their pecorino and usher the flies inside.

Once the eggs hatch, the larvae emerge, blind and hungry. They much their way through the cheese, leaking their acidic digestive juices to break down its fats. They then expel their waste as a soft beige paste, which is, if you didn't guess it already, essentially maggot poop.

Yes, you read that right. The deliciousness of casu marzu comes not only from eating the maggots themselves but also from their excrement.

This fermentation process typically takes a few months and only happens when the conditions are right between May and October. It must be at least 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) for the cheese to mature appropriately.

Where Can I Try Casu Marzu?

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

Did that description of this ripe treat get your taste buds tingling and your saliva flowing? Well, I am not one to judge. If you really must get yourself some casu marzu, then you have a fairly long trek ahead of you.

Despite it being illegal basically everywhere, including in Italy, the production of casu marzu is still rife. An estimated 100 tons of the stuff is made each year, worth a cool 2.5-3.5 million USD.

This black market exists solely in Sardinia, so you will need to make the trip there to find some. Due to the cheese's dodgy legal status, farmers who produce it may not be keen to advertise as such. There's no formal method to get your hands on any, with most advice from those who have been there suggesting that you simply 'ask around' until you find a guy that knows a guy.

How Do You Eat Casu Marzu?

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

Like many foods which have deep roots in a place's culture, there is a particular way that you should eat casu marzu. However, this methodology is less about respecting the local traditions and more about avoiding any potential life-threatening health conditions caused by your snack.

When the cheese is deemed ready for consumption, the lid is peeled back to reveal its gooey innards. You can tell it's ready because it begins to leak a putrid goop through the rind, known locally as Lagrimas, or "tears." At this moment, the maggots, who have been so warm and cozy inside the dark and moist environment, become agitated by the light, and this makes them jump around, which is quite a sight to behold.

These wriggly little worm-like creatures can launch themselves an incredible nine inches, which means, yes: you will be in the firing line. A maggot in the eye, nose or any other orifice (save the mouth, apparently) is not a desirable scenario for anyone.

To avoid this, then, there are a variety of tactics at your disposal. The first is simple yet effective: after spreading your maggot-laden poop cheese on a moistened flatbread (as is customary), hold your hand over the top of the meal. Bring it to your mouth, remembering to keep one hand as a maggot-shield, and presto! Be sure to chew well so as to not swallow any live maggots—more on that in a minute.

The second tactic involves killing the maggots by suffocation. Sounds brutal? Well, it kind of is. So is nibbling them to death, though.

To suffocate your cheese maggots (there is a sentence I never thought I would write), put a slice of casu marzu in a paper bag. Or, if you have one, a Ziploc. Seal the top so that no air can get in. The maggots will writhe and jump around, making a pitter-patter sound on the bag. When the noise stops… you got it! Presto!

This brings us to the third tactic, which is reminiscent of lobster cooking. Putting the cheese in the fridge will chill it below a survivable temperature for the maggots, who will perish, leaving you to enjoy your casu marzu safely.

Last but not least, a timeless classic: simply mash your maggots with a fork or any other utensil until they stop wriggling and can be safely munched on without making a leap for your nostrils.

Note: if the maggots are already dead once the lid of a casu marzu is opened, it is deemed unsafe to eat. The fermentation process has gone on for too long, and the cheese has become toxic.

Why Is Casu Marzu Illegal?

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

The reason for casu marzu being banned is purely down to food health and safety. Although, as a species, we already eat a lot of fermented food (hello, wine!), there are stringent regulations and practices in place.

The primary concern with casu marzu production is the lack of control over where the flies have been before laying their eggs in the cheese. The same fly could have been on any manner of things, likely including dog poop and rotting vegetation or animals, and picked up all sorts of harmful bacteria or viruses which could be easily transmitted to the cheese.

The next health concern relates to what may happen if a live maggot, unchewed, made its way into the human body and found itself in the intestine. This is called pseudocyesis or intestinal myiasis. There have been documented cases of this condition with cheese skipper flies, piophila casei—the ones who are used for casu marzu production.

Symptoms of myiasis include pain, nausea, vomiting, an itchy anus, and diarrhea mixed with blood and maggots. Nice.

Did Anyone Ever Die From Eating Casu Marzu?

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

It is reassuring that as much as can be determined from online research, there have been no documented cases of deaths explicitly caused by casu marzu consumption.

That being said, there is no guarantee.

What Does Casu Marzu Taste Like?

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

If you like strong cheese, then the likelihood that you will enjoy casu marzu is probable. That is if you can get past the whole maggot infestation thing.

People say that the taste lingers for many hours. Reported as spicy, with a hint of bitterness and a definitive tangy flavor, this cheese is comparable with ripe gorgonzola.

It is best eaten paired with a strong red wine such as a Cannonau, and spread thickly on a Sardinian flatbread, referred to locally as "pane carasau."

Who Eats Casu Marzu?

Casu Marzu, The Illegal Cheese: All Your Questions Answered

Aside from the obvious dark tourists, of which there are many, locals still eat this cheese as a way of life. It is thought to be an aphrodisiac and is traditionally presented at wedding parties.

Production is legal, but selling the cheese comes with a hefty fine of up to $60k. So, it's reasonably safe to assume that most consumption happens within local communities and families who produce this cheese traditionally.

Whoever dares must have a strong stomach. Though, the moment before the bite is much worse than the eating itself for this rotten delicacy!