I’ve already talked about mimolette (the cheese-mite / bed-bug cheese) which is often banned by the FDA in the USA for its high levels of *cough* “residual protein.” But mimolette is a walk in the park compared to its Sardinian cousin, casu marzu.
Casu marzu translates into English as the “rotten cheese” but it’s more commonly known outside of Sardinia by its nickname the “maggot cheese.” To the Sardinian people, however, it’s a symbol of national pride and of their cultural heritage.
Only a handful of people know how to make this sheep milk cheese (pecorino, in Italian) because, after a month of ageing, they make some long incisions into the cheese which encourages flies to lay their eggs in the very centre of the cheese.
After a few more months of ripening, the cheese is ready to eat and these recently-hatched larvae will be about a centimetre long. They are very much alive; they wriggle and will even jump out of the cheese. You’re supposed to eat the cheese, maggots and all.
It is even said that the maggots are a sign that the cheese is good. If you open the cheese and find the maggots dead, you shouldn’t eat the cheese either.
Casu marzu is as strong, if not stronger, than a well-ripened Roquefort. Salty, pungent and certainly not for the faint-hearted; as with everything, when it’s made well, it’s actually really good. The wheel I tried a couple of days ago was still relatively young but it was rich and tangy and built beautifully in complexity.
Because it’s so rare and because it can’t be sold by the slice, opening a wheel of casu marzu means inviting a group of people for a party or a celebration. It’s not a cheese that’s made for casually keeping a piece in the fridge for the occasional midnight snack. Opening a wheel is an event in itself.
This must make it the only food in the world which comes both with maggots and a sense of occasion.
If you have 10 minutes, it’s well worth watching this professionally produced video showing you the provenance, procedure and importance of casu marzu.
Finally, if you thought that casu marzu was the most extreme Sardinian cheese, let me take you up a level!
The kid is killed (a baby goat, I should specify!) just after it has fed from its mother. In the spirit of letting nothing go to waste, the stomach, still full of milk, is sealed and then hung up and over the next few weeks, will turn into cheese. The acids found naturally in the stomach cause, much like rennet, the milk to curdle. After a couple of months, it’s ready to eat. Apparently, it’s strong – like, really strong.
As with casu marzu, you can’t just go into a cheese shop and expect to see su gallu on the counter. You need to know someone who knows someone who… and I haven’t yet found the right person to ask… but do you know what, I feel su gallu might just be outside my comfort zone!
Vice wrote a piece on this cheese ten years ago. Here.