Casu Marzu is not your average cheese lover’s cheese. The name of this Sardinian specialty literally translates to “rotten cheese.” And if that’s not to scare you away, how about a few thousand wriggling maggots?
That’s right. Casu Marzu, otherwise known as walking cheese, is an Italian sheep’s milk variety with a little something extra. You could say it’s alive. Very alive.
How Casu Marzu is Made
Casu Marzu begins as Pecorino Sardo (Fiore Sardo), a cheese that’s typically soaked in brine, smoked, and left to ripen in the cheese cellars of central Sardinia. But to produce Casu Marzu, cheese makers set the Pecorino Sardo outside in the open – uncovered – and allow cheese flies (scientifically named Piophila casei) to lay eggs inside of it.
As the eggs hatch into a myriad of white transparent maggots, they feed on the cheese. By doing so, they produce enzymes that promote fermentation and cause fats within the Casu Marzu to decompose.
Sometimes, cuts are made into the rind of Pecorino Sardo and already-hatched maggots are introduced into the cheese. This speeds the whole cheese making process along.
How Casu Marzu Tastes
Casu Marzu is a local delicacy in very high demand. It’s a highly pungent, super soft cheese that oozes tears (“lagrima”), and fittingly so, as it tends to burn on the tongue.
Some say Casu Marzu tastes like an extremely ripe Gorgonzola. That is, of course, without the savoury blue veins and with a whole lot of larva. One piece of Casu Marzu may be populated by thousands of living, breathing maggots.
In fact, local Sardinians will tell you the spicy, creamy cheese is only okay to eat if the maggots are still moving. Apparently, once the maggots are dead, the Casu Marzu has gone bad – decayed to a point that’s too toxic for human consumption.
Is Casu Marzu Dangerous?
Casu Marzu has been declared illegal and not in compliance with EU hygienic standards. It is banned by Italian health laws and not sold in shops. In addition to numerous anecdotal reports of allergic reaction (including burning, crawling skin sensations that last for days), there is increasing concern of risk for enteric myiasis, or intestinal larval infection.
Once ingested, it’s possible for the Piophila casei larvae to pass through the human stomach without dying (sometimes stomach acids aren’t enough to kill them). In that case, the maggots may take up residency in the intestines for some time. They can cause serious lesions and bore through intestinal walls, resulting in abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and bloody diarrhoea.
Despite the health warnings, people in Sardinia say they’ve been eating Casu Marzu for hundreds of years without any problem. In fact, the Italian cheese is often brought out for special occasions like birthdays, bachelor parties, and weddings. According to folklore, Casu Marzu is even an aphrodisiac.
Casu Marzu Buying & Serving Tips
Casu Marzu cannot be legally sold in Italy, but mountain shepherds continue to produce it in small quantities for the black market. It’s often kept under the table, but only for the most trusted customers. Selling or serving it is punishable by a hefty fine.
If you find yourself with strong stomach and a local Sardinian connection, Casu Marzu may be procured – for about twice the price per pound as regular Pecorino. It’s generally served with thin slices of Sardinian bread (pane carasau) and a strong, red wine called Cannonau.
One final note of caution, some people wear eye protection when eating Casu Marzu: the maggots are known to jump as high as six inches and straight toward the eyeballs with exact precision. At a minimum, make a maggot sandwich and shield your eyes with your hand as you take a bite.