So, hey you guys. Have you ever heard of this place called Sardinia? A SUPPOSED island in the middle of the Mediterranean, which is kind of between Italy, Corsica, and North Africa. Where balmy breezes gently brush past white sands, only to gently sway palm trees laden with coconuts and monkey butlers to and fro, only to reveal a delicious swirly margarita machine tucked into a beautiful grotto, surrounded by tropical flowers and hula dancers and probably a white tiger. And most likely a crocodile in a tuxedo is sitting at a grand piano, gently tinkling away and singing Harry Belafonte tunes. Or something like that. I may or may not have just taken a lot of Zicam.
But, seriously. I don’t know if it’s because it’s cold and rainy in Brooklyn, but Sardinia looks pretty sweet right about now. Relatively hilly and with craggy cliffs leading up to the blue, temperate ocean, it looks like the setting for a James Bond movie, and is clearly home to the craziest and most awesome pirate people on the planet.
Home to sun drenched escarpments, rolling hills littered with bushes of scraggly local fauna, lovely cheeses (Flor di Capra or Fiore Sardo, por ejemplo), a lot of sheep, and a lot of goats, my quest for information about Sardinia was fueled by one thing, and one thing only: Casu Marzu. This cheese has become something of an urban dairy legend (right up there with the Chinese Food Sex Scarecrow, rent controlled apartments, and this) and every now and then, some smart aleck customer will come in and try and one-up our cheese selection by bringing this ol’ thang up.
What is Casu Marzu, pray tell? Well, time to put down your crudité niblet and white wine spritzer and listen closely. Casu Marzu is one of the grossest (or if you are one of those types, “EXTREME”) foods of the internet lore lexicon. Basically it’s a perfectly good cheese that has been aged while full of living, breathing, creeping, crawling, squirming, grossing me out maggots. That’s right – it’s good ol’ fashioned maggot cheese.
Talk about a way to go off eating for a bit and give you terrible malaria dreams! But hey. While you are rocking back and forth in the corner of your dimly lit studio apartment, clutching yourself and wondering why anyone would dare create such a disaster of a cheese product (well, it may not cause as many waking nightmares as thisdoes…), just remember it comes from that island paradise called SARDINIA.
So how does this little baby start? Well, let’s start with geography. Sardinia is a small, hilly island. Unlike the Alps, there aren’t very many lush pastures for large herds of heritage breed bovine to graze in. So that rules out rich cow’s milk cheese. A lush coastal exterior gives way to a hot and sunny interior, resulting in shrubby vegetation. Which means one thing and one thing only: lots of sheep (and lots of goats, but we’ll don’t really need to pay attention to them at the moment…). These little suckers are perfectly happy rolling around hills, hopping from rock to rock, nibbling ol’ tin can bushes and cigarette butt florettes. Sounds like heaven. Or Williamsburg. So, that leaves us with knowing that this cheese is a pecorino, or an Italian sheep’s milk cheese. (Little sidetrack lesson. “Pecora” = sheep in Italian. Hence, “pecorino” = Italian sheep’s milk cheese. Ta da! Two lessons in one…)
Alright. So this cheese starts simply enough, as Fiore Sardo. A DOP cheese, it is essentially a smoked pecorino, that usually is really strong, tastes like you threw a bushel of tobacco on a fire, and is aged for about 8 to 10 months.
But here is where things get FISHY. And by fishy, I mean covered in flies. So, these old mountain men herd the sheep, milk the sheep, make cheese is copper vats using rustic, traditional methods, then smoke the cheese for three months. Three months into the process, they take the cheese out from the smokin’ hut that it lives in, slice the top of it off, and just kind of plop the wheels of cheese out on a table. This way, flies can lay their eggs into the paté of the cheese and let the maggots go to town. AND these aren’t just any ol’ flies that are zipping around the farm. These are specifically, Piophili casei, or CHEESE FLIES. Gross. I just threw up half a mouthful of vomit into my own hands thinking about this process. From this point, there is littler information as to what the continued aging process is. Do they leave the cheese out on a table? Does it go back into a smoker? For how long? I’m imagining it’s a couple of weeks, but I could be totally off base here. If anyone has ever had any experience making maggot based products, please put me in my place.
So. You’ve got your cheese. It’s full of thousands of maggots. Now they are basically crawling around this cheese mold, eating the rich, fatty sheep’s milk cheese and pooping it out. The enzymes in the maggot digestive tract decompose the cheese paté, making a gooey, creamy, at times liquefied cheese by-product. Supposedly, the cheese “weeps,” which Sardinian cheese-pirates dub “lagrimas” or TEARS (probably brought on by the terror of watching maggot cheese be made…). Essentially, this is a fermented wheel of cheese. It’s the kimchi of the cheese world.
From here, the terror doesn’t end. Your cheese rind has essentially turned into a bread bowl, cradling your putrefied maggot blob inside. But from here, you can sit down and eat! Nom nom nom. Call your whole family over to dinner. Your grandma. Your neighbors. That cute guy you sat next to on the bus that one time and you are pretty sure he was giving you the moves even though he was probably just forced into a crowded bus which is why he kept brushing up against your leg and the only reason you could tell it was happening was because you were wearing jean hot pants in January. ALL OF EM. In Sardinia, this cheese is reserved for super special occasions. So, time to make up a holiday (Happy Zicam Cold Remedy Biannual!) and throw a maggot party.
You remove the lid, and the interior is a squirming, ivory colored mash of goo. And then dive in! Scoop away! But watch out! Because apparently, maggots can leap OUT of the cheese, to a distance of up to 6 whole inches. So. Watch out for your eyes. This is traditionally eaten on a piece of crispy flatbread (or perhaps Tostinos Scoops), accompanied by a huge goblet of really big red wine. Oh, and you definitely want to get some maggots onto your slice of heaven. That’s the whole fun! Et voila. Your party is a success!
Supposedly the flavor is very strong. Some say it’s gorgonzola-esque, with a definite bestial quality, and a black pepper finish. Oh, and, many claim it’s an aphrodisiac! Which means you should definitely invite that sultry stranger from the bus over! Because who knows what could happen when you have a belly full of squirming, cheesy maggots. **Sigh** I’m pretty sure that’s how most Meg Ryan rom-coms start. Right?
So. Apart from the obvious, there are some things to remember about this cheese. A.) Some might try to tell you that this cheese is illegal. But, in fact, due to a loophole in European Union food-hygiene regulations that has to do with the European Union protecting traditional methods of food preparation (and apparently the government of Sardinia has published some sort of instructional guide on how to make this…) it’s totally legal! It’s just real hard to find. Although there is supposedly a restaurant in Queens that will offer you a taste after your meal of Spaghetti Carbonara. Just make sure to order whatever will taste just as good going down as it does coming up. And now, B.) Be careful when eating live maggots! Some of them can survive stomach acid, and then will lodge in your intestines, eating through the walls of your digestive tract, and it will result in your body filling up with poop. Literally. Poop.
THERE YOU HAVE IT. Yes, maggot cheese is a real thing. That’s how you make it. That’s where it comes from. That’s how you eat it. That’s how it is still around AND that’s how your body fills with fecal matter. Ta da! Now, for further visual education, here are two videos that are fairly informative (albeit filled with pasty white wiener over eaters who are totally obnoxious to look at and even more annoying to listen to). Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Adios! XOXO.
Why does Gordon Ramsey act that way? Is he a meth head? Huffing paint?