The name “casu marzu” tends to conjure up images of Eastern invaders dashing across The Steppes on horseback in pursuit of Western conquest, or of some dark-haired, doe-eyed, harem beauty, unequaled in the art of seduction. But, alas, casu marzu is just the name of a cheese.
“Casu marzu,” also called “casu modde,” “casu cundidu,” and “casu fràzigu” in the native Sardinian language, and “formaggio marcio” in Italian, literally means “rotten cheese.” Sardinia’s colorful and eventful history is also eclectic: “casu” is believed to derive from the Spanish word “queso,” meaning “cheese,” and “marzu” derives from the Italian word “marcio,” meaning “rotten.”
Casu marzu begins its life, peacefully, respectably—and legally—as Italy’s world-famous Pecorino cheese, a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. But it is what happens to the Pecorino after it is made that transforms this Sardinian delicacy into one of life’s great luxuries, albeit a peculiar and sometimes feared (and now prohibited) one.
After the Pecorino cheese has been formed, it is placed in a cool, dark place, where it cures (ages) for about three weeks before its upper rind (crust) is sliced off and set aside so as to invite the “cheese fly,” Piophilia casei, to lay its eggs in the body of the open-face cheese—an invitation which the fly welcomes since it is keen on infesting human foodstuffs. The fly’s eggs develop into pearl-white, somewhat-translucent maggots that voraciously consume portions of the cheese, digest it, and then deposit their excrement within the body of the cheese. In the process, the formerly hard cheese becomes soft and creamy, so much so that its liquified portions sometimes ooze though breaches in its rind—a phenomenon the Sardinians, with their ever-romantic, flowery language, call “lagrima” (“tears” in English). (The less romantic English or Germans would probably call it “pus” of “cheese poop”!)
After the larvae have done their work—eating, digesting, and excreting—for about two to three months, the now-soft, pungently fragrant casu marzu is ready for human consumption! The upper crust is replaced, and the delicacy is served, maggots moving, wiggling, and burrowing about to their hearts’ content, presumably unaware that they and that upon which they feast will soon be feasted upon.
Dubbed “cheese skippers,” the maggots, usually about four millimeters in length (about one-sixth of an inch), are known to propel themselves a distance of about 15 centimeters (approximately six inches), 36 times the length of their bodies, when disturbed—or, in layman’s terms, the maggots can jump out the cheese and onto the dining table when touched with a fork! Some fastidious eaters—to the extent that such types would ever entertain the thought of eating casu marzu in the first place—are known to painstakingly extract the live, cheese-colored maggots, one by one, from the cheese prior to eating the delicacy. But true connoisseurs of casu marzu eat the larvae along with the cheese. After all, what could possibly be cause for additional alarm about eating a moving maggot when one is also eating said maggot’s excrement?
Casu marzu’s flavor can perhaps be best described as an über-intense Pecorino with hints of pepper. Its flavor assaults the tongue—in a good-bad-interesting way. It can perhaps be best likened to good sex with a mean dominatrix. The delicacy’s unique taste and after-taste have been known to linger in the mouth for hours. One would be wise, therefore, to truly like casu marzu if one intends to regularly indulge in its delights. Casu marzu is typically priced affordably, at about twice its Pecorino counterparts.
Because—in rare instances—maggots swallowed alive have been known survive the human intestinal tract, only to take up lodging in the human body, causing enteric myiasis, a gentleman should follow the sage advice provided him as a child: chew thoroughly before swallowing!
Only a few residents of Sardinia make casu marzu. The delicacy is also made in Corsica, where it is called “casgiu merzu.” Several European countries, citing health concerns, prohibit the importation of the luxury. And its official production for sale is officially prohibited even in Italy. But gentlemen of steely constitution are known to alight in Sardinia specifically to delight in this rare treat. And makers of Pecorino, especially people making it at home for household consumption, sometimes—oftentimes—find themselves with casu marzu, by accident, of course. And as it is a sin to waste or throw away food, what is a gentleman to do—other than eat the delicacy? After all, there are people starving in certain parts of the world….
Because of the nature of casu marzu, it is rarely encountered outside the places where it is made: Much of the point in eating the notorious cheese is to devour the creeping, crawling, cheese-engorged maggots in the process; and with packaging, shipping, refrigeration, etc., the larvae would likely perish. And if there is one thing that requires more fortitude than eating living maggots, it is eating dead ones!
Casu marzu is not for everyone. But it should be tried by every gentleman at least once in his lifetime, provided that he chew properly before swallowing. Then, just to be on the safe side, he should chase the casu marzu with another of the world’s great luxuries: a shot of Single-Barrel Cruzan Rum. Any maggots that survived mastication will certainly succumb to inebriation.