Posted by: Didapper PJ24 OCT 2008
While cruising the internet you risk being hijacked by weird stories you were not really looking for, and I was recently captivated by a page about a Sardinian cheese known as casu marzu (YouTube).
The name means “rotten cheese” in the Sardinian language, Sardu. It is also known colloquially as “maggot cheese” because — and stop right here if you are squeamish — it is crawling with fly larvae.
Casu marzu begins as pecorino sardo, a sheep’s milk cheese that is typically soaked in brine, smoked and left to ripen in cheese cellars. But to produce casu marzu, the cheese makers leave the cheese in the open so that cheese flies (Piophila casei, if you must) can lay their eggs in it.
The cheese fly eggs hatch into thousands of transparent maggots, which feed on the formaggio, producing enzymes that promote fermentation and cause the cheese fats to decompose. The resultant product is a pungent, spicy, creamy cheese that oozes “tears” and burns on the tongue.
Not surprisingly, casu marzu has been declared illegal by the Italian health polizia, and selling it can now attract a hefty fine. But Sardinians have eaten it for centuries without apparent harm, and it remains in demand as a local delicacy.
Despite the health warnings, the cheese is often brought out for special occasions, when it is usually served with Sardinian bread and a local strong red wine. Made in small quantities by mountain shepherds, it is sold only to the most trusted customers and costs about twice the price of regular pecorino.
Sardinians say the cheese is safe so long as the maggots are still active, because their death indicates that it has become too toxic for consumption. Some people wear eye protection when eating it because the maggots can jump 15cm — and tend to aim for the eyeballs.
Reported allergic reactions to the cheese include burning, crawling skin sensations that can last for days. In addition, the ingested maggots can pass through the gut without being killed by stomach acids and may bore through the intestinal walls, causing abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and bloody diarrhoea.
As the Italians would say, Buon appetito! (Unfortunately, I have failed to find a website that can translate that salutation into Sardu.)