Casu marzu: the most dangerous cheese in the world

(CNN) — The Italian island of Sardinia is located in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, overlooking Italy from afar. Surrounded by a 1,849-kilometer coastline of white sandy beaches and emerald waters, the island’s interior rapidly rises to form rolling hills and rugged mountains.

And it is in these sharp curves that shepherds produce casu marzu, a maggot-infested cheese that was listed in the Guinness Book of Records in 2009 as the most dangerous cheese in the world.

The cheese skipper flies Piophila caseilay their eggs in cracks that form in the cheese, usually fiore sardo, the salty pecorino of the island.

The larvae hatch by working their way through the pasta, digesting the proteins in the process and turning the product into soft cream cheese.

Then the cheesemonger opens the lid, barely touched by the maggots, and scoops out a spoonful of creamy treat.

This is not a moment for the faint of heart. At this point, the larvae inside begin to writhe wildly.

Some locals spin the cheese in a centrifuge to mix the larvae with the cheese. Others like it in nature. They open their mouths and eat everything.

Kasu marzu is made from sheep’s milk.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

If you can overcome the understandable revulsion, marzu will have an intense taste reminiscent of Mediterranean pastures and a sharp aftertaste that lasts for several hours.

Some say it is an aphrodisiac. Others say that it can be hazardous to human health since the larvae can survive the bite and cause myiasis, microperforations in the intestines, but so far no such case has been associated with casu marzu.

“The maggot infestation is the charm and beauty of this cheese,” says Paolo Solinas, a 29-year-old deli from Sardinia.

He says that some Sardinians cringe at the thought of casu marzu, but others, raised all their lives on salted pecorino, unashamedly love its strong taste.

“Some shepherds see cheese as a unique, personal treat that only a select few can taste,” adds Solinas.

archaic cuisine

Kasu Marzu 2-1

Selling or buying casu marzu is prohibited by law.

Giovanni Fancello

When tourists visit Sardinia, they usually end up at a restaurant serving porceddu sardo, slowly roasted pig, visiting bakers who sell pane carasau, the traditional thin flatbread, and meeting shepherds who make fiore sardo, the island’s pecorino cheese.

However, if you are adventurous enough, casu marzu can be found. This should not be seen as a strange sight, but a product that upholds an ancient tradition and hints at what the food of the future might look like.

Giovanni Fancello, a 77-year-old Sardinian journalist and deli, has dedicated his life to studying the history of the local cuisine. He traced this back to the time when Sardinia was a province of the Roman Empire.

“Our language was Latin, and it is in our dialect that we find traces of our archaic cuisine,” says Fancello.

kazu marzu -6

Cheese can only be produced at certain times of the year when sheep’s milk is suitable.

Alice Mastinou

According to Fancello, there is no written evidence of Sardinian recipes before 1909. It was then that Vittorio Agnetti, a physician from continental Modena, traveled to Sardinia and compiled six recipes into a book called La nuova cucina delle specialità Regionali.

“But we always ate worms,” says Fancello. “Pliny the Elder and Aristotle spoke of this.”

Ten other Italian regions have their own version of the maggot-infested cheese, but while foods elsewhere are considered disposable, casu marzu is an integral part of Sardinian culinary culture.

The cheese has several different names such as casu becciu, casu fattittu, hasu muhidu, formaggio marcio. Each sub-region of the island has its own way of producing it using different types of milk.

“Magic and Supernatural Phenomena”

Gourmets, inspired by the exploits of chefs like Gordon Ramsay, often come looking for cheese, Fancello says. “They ask us, ‘How do you make casu marzu?’ This is part of our history. We are the sons of this food. It is the result of chance, magic and supernatural events.”

Fancello grew up in the town of Tiesi with his father Sebastiano, a shepherd who cooked casu marzu. Facello herded his family’s sheep in the pastures in the Monte Rujo countryside, lost in the clouds where magic was believed to take place.

He recalls that for his father, casu marzu was a divine gift. If his cheeses weren’t infested with grubs, he’d be in despair. Some of the cheese he produced was left for the family, some went to friends or people who asked for it.

Casu Marzu is usually produced at the end of June, when the local sheep’s milk begins to change, as the animals enter their reproductive season and the grass dries in the summer heat.

Coastal town of Alghero on Sarnina.

Coastal town of Alghero on Sarnina.

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

If the warm wind of the sirocco blows on the day of cheese production, the magic of cheese transformation works even more. Fancello says this is because the cheese has a weaker texture, making it easier for the fly to do its job.

Three months later, the delicacy is ready.

66-year-old Mario Murrocu keeps the tradition of casu marzu on his farm. Agritourism Sa Mandra, near Alghero in northern Sardinia. He also keeps 300 sheep and hosts guests in his trattoria, as well as upholding the casu marzu tradition.

“You know when the form becomes casu marzu,” he says. “You can see it in the unusual spongy texture of the paste,” Murroku says.

Nowadays, it depends not so much on luck as on the ideal conditions that cheese merchants now use to secure as much casu marzu as possible. They also found a way to use glass jars to store cheese, which has traditionally never been stored past September, for many years.

High fines

kazu marzu -5

The unusual cheese of Sardinia dates back to Roman times.

Alice Mastinou

Despite the respect, the legal status of cheese remains a gray area.

Casu marzu is registered as a traditional product of Sardinia and is therefore protected locally. However, it has been considered illegal by the Italian government since 1962 due to laws against eating food contaminated with parasites.

Those who sell cheese can be fined large sums of up to 50,000 euros (about $60,000), but Sardinians laugh when asked about the ban on their favorite cheese.

Research shows that their consumption could help reduce livestock-related carbon emissions and help mitigate the climate crisis.
Roberto Flore, Sardinian head Skylab FoodLabDanish University of Technology’s food system change laboratory has been studying the concept of insect consumption for a long time.
For several years he led Scandinavian Food Lab research and development team – part of the three-star Michelin NOMA Restaurant – trying to figure out how to introduce insects into our diet.

“In many cultures, the insect is associated with the ingredient,” Floor says. However, Sardinians prefer cheese to grubs and are often horrified at the thought of people eating scorpions or crickets in Thailand.

Flore says he has traveled the world to study how different cultures view insects as food, and believes that while psychological barriers make it difficult to radically change eating habits, such consumption is widespread.

open mind

Insect consumption is more common in countries such as Thailand.

Insect consumption is more common in countries such as Thailand.

PORNCHAY KITTIVONGSAKUL/AFP via Getty Images

“How do you define edible food?” he says, “Every region of the world has different ways of eating insects.”

He is convinced that Sardinian delicacies can be eaten.

“I believe that no one has ever died eating kasa marza. If he died, he might have been drunk. You know, when you eat it, you also drink a lot of wine.”

Flore hopes that casu marzu will soon lose its secret status and become a symbol of Sardinia – not because of unusual production, but because it is a symbol of other products that are now disappearing because they do not fit into modern tastes.

The islanders and researchers hope that the European Union will soon rule in their favor.

Until then, anyone who wants to try it will have to ask when they get to Sardinia.

For those who want to put aside the worries about what they eat, it offers an authentic experience, reminiscent of a time when nothing was thrown away and when the boundaries of what was edible and what was not were less clearly defined.

A Murroku cheese merchant says locals are open-minded about the best way to eat casu marzu, but there are several other local treats known to make it easier to digest.

“We spread cheese on the wet glass of the caracau and eat it,” he says. “But you can eat it however you want, as long as there’s some formaggio marcio and good cannonau wine.”

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