Cheese innovators since time immemorial have pushed the limits of the curd, and some of their innovations are as bizarre as they are delicious. In Culture’s Believe It or Not, sit back, forget everything you know about cheese, and take a bite out of the weirdest wheels the world has to offer.
Everyone is good at something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be what you do for a living, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Once you do something you’re good at a lot, you get really good at it, and then you have to change something to keep yourself occupied. There are countless examples of this, mostly in the form of viral videos. If you make something, you start to explore different variations and new methods of production. Variation gives color to the world, and there are a million elegant ways to introduce it into the products you make. Or, you know, you could just take your labor of love and jam it full of maggots.
Enter Casu Marzu, the veritable dumpster of cheeses.
If you can’t tell from the picture, this wheel is fully infested with the larvae of the so-called cheese fly, Piophila casei. Cheese flies, also called bacon flies, are known for infesting cured meats and cheeses, making them quite a nuisance to 99% of the non-vegan world. If your wheels get larvae in them, it’s pretty much game over, and the best you can hope for is leniency on the behalf of the cheese gods once you’ve cursed them, tear-streaked face turned towards the sky.
If you do wake up one morning to discover you’ve got squiggly friends in your wheels, you better hope to holey moley that you live very specifically on the island of Sardinia.
Sardinia never got the “Maggots Are the Grossest Things Ever” memo humanity sent around a while ago, probably because they were a little preoccupied with the whole “iving in the Most Beautiful Place on Earth” thing.
Sardinia is an Italian island in the center of the Mediterranean Sea with a penchant for . . . interesting food, including braided baby goat intestine. And horse steaks. Casu Marzu—which literally translates to “rotten cheese”—is the stinky coup de grace. It starts out as a pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese with variations that include the spaghetti staple Romano. After the wheel is complete, part of the rind is removed and the wheel is left outside to allow the female cheese fly to load it full of its little squiggling babies. The larvae then chew through the innards of the wheel, churning up the cheese. The maggots are very acidic, because why not, and the acid breaks down the fats, giving the cheese a creamy texture—well, creamy if you forget all the squishy, hungry residents. Turns out they’re pretty hard to forget because by the time the cheese is ready for consumption, there are thousands of them wriggling around in there. I say wriggle because it isn’t enough to eat cheese filled with maggots, you have to eat it while they’re still alive; if they’re dead, the cheese is considered unsafe to eat. Besides feeling them writhe around on your tongue, you can tell if they’re alive pretty easily: they jump. They jump so high that you are encouraged to put a hand over the cheese as you bring it to your mouth to avoid adventurous larvae who want to get an intimate look at your eyeball or the inside of your nose.
Even when the maggots are around and kickin’, however, consumers of the cheese still run some risks. It is possible for the larvae to survive the trip to stomach city, hydrochloric acid and all. This can be dangerous when the digested maggots enter the intestinal tract, where they can survive long enough to do an array of fun things like boring holes and creating serious lesions in intestinal walls. So, theoretically, you could do yourself the great disservice of maggot-munching, and then pay for it with abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting. What an honor!
It turns out that not everyone on the Continent shares the same enthusiasm for cheese that moves. Many places in the European Union with local staples are granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), meaning the foods can only be produced in an area its traditionally made according to exacting standards. This applies to things like Gorgonzola, Roquefort, and most famously, Champagne. Casu Marzu is made only in Sardinia and is created in a specific way, making it a no-brainer for the PDO status. But instead, the EU outlawed the cheese, citing not totally unjustified safety concerns. This caused a reaction in the cheese world akin to Prohibition, and wheels fetched high prices on the Italian food mafia’s black market.
While Casu Marzu may sound unappetizing or even dangerous to our delicate sensibilities, the natives of Sardinia swear by it, and it can be found at celebrations and special events.
That being said, casu marzu—according to those who try it—is overwhelming. Some describe it as sour, others go for more for blunt terms, like “ammoniated,” and the taste will stay with you for hours after. Gordon Ramsey tried it, in the video above, and had nothing other than a constructive four-letter-word to say about it. The acid the maggots secrete give the cheese a uniquely, well, acidic flavor that translatea to Sardinians as a delicacy and to the faint of heart as a major warning sign. Plus, apparently, you can feel the little guys wiggle around in your mouth, so be prepared for that too.
Yes, this is by far the least appetizing cheese I’ll be writing about in this series of posts, but I really wanted to get it out of the way so I never have to think about maggots again. Now you don’t, either!