Casu marzu: The world’s ‘most dangerous’ cheese
(CNN) – The Italian island of Sardinia is located in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, looking at Italy from a distance. Surrounded by a coastline of 1,849 km with white sandy beaches and emerald waters, the interior landscape of the island rises rapidly forming hills and impenetrable mountains.
And within these nerve curves shepherds produce casu marzu, a daisy-contaminated cheese that, in 2009, the Guinness World Record declared the most dangerous cheese in the world.
The cheese captain flies, Piophila casei, lays her eggs in cracks that form in cheese, usually fiore sardo, the island’s salty pecorino.
The beans hatch, make their way through the paste, digest proteins in the process and turn the product into a soft cream cheese.
The cheesemonger then opens the top – which is almost intact from the worms – to pick up a spoonful of the creamy delicacy.
This is not the time for the faint of heart. At this point, the grilles on the inside start to go crazy.
Some locals spin the cheese through a centrifuge to merge the slices with the cheese. Others like au naturel. They open their mouths and eat everything.
Casu marzu is made with sheep’s milk.
Sean Gallup / Getty Images
If you are able to overcome the understandable disgust, marzu has a flavor that is intense with reminiscent of Mediterranean pastures and spicy with an aftertaste that stays for hours.
Some say it is aphrodisiac. Others say it could be dangerous to human health, as the worms could survive the bite and cause myasia, small intestinal perforations, but so far no such case has been linked to casu marzu.
“The sage infestation is the spell and enjoyment of this cheese,” says Paolo Solinas, a 29-year-old Sardinian gastronomer.
He says that some Sardinians crave the thought of casu marzu, but others grew up living a life of salty pecorino unreservedly adoring its intense flavors.
“Some shepherds see cheese as a unique personal treat, something only a select few can try,” Solinas adds.
It is illegal to sell or buy casu marzu.
When tourists visit Sardinia, they usually end up with a restaurant that serves porceddu sardo, a piglet that is slowly suckling, visits bakers selling caracas, a traditional thin bread with thin paper and meets shepherds who produce fiore sardo, the fiore sardo.
However, if you are adventurous enough, you can find casu marzu. It should not be considered a strange attraction, but a product that keeps alive an ancient tradition and hints at what the future of food will look like.
Giovanni Fancello, a 77-year-old Sardinian journalist and gastronomer, has spent his life researching local food history. He found it at a time when Sardinia was a province of the Roman Empire.
“Latin was our language, and in our dialect we find traces of our archaic cuisine,” says Fancello.
Cheese can only be produced at certain times of the year when sheep’s milk is right.
There is no written history of Sardinian recipes until 1909, according to Fancello. Then Vittorio Agnetti, a doctor from mainland Modena, traveled to Sardinia and wrote six recipes in a book entitled “La nuova cucina delle specialità regionali”.
“But we always ate worms,” says Fancello. “Pliny the Elder and Aristotle talked about it.”
Ten other Italian regions have the pencil variant of cheese, but while the products are considered lump sums elsewhere, casu marzu is inherently part of Sardinian food culture.
The cheese has many different names, such as casu becciu, casu fattittu, hasu muhidu, formaggio marcio. Each sub-region of the island has its own way of production using different types of milk.
“Magic and supernatural events”
Foods inspired by farm chefs like Gordon Ramsay are often looking for cheese, says Fancello. “They ask us: ‘How do you make casu marzu?’ “It simply came to our notice then. We are the sons of this food. It is the result of luck, magical and supernatural events. “
Fancello grew up in Thiesi with his father Sebastiano, a shepherd who made casu marzu. Fesello put his family’s sheep in pastures around rural Monte Ruju, lost in the clouds, where magic is believed to occur.
He recalls that, for his father, casu marzu was a divine gift. If his cheeses had not been infected with worms, he would have been desperate. Some of the cheeses he produced were left for the family, others went to friends or people who asked for it.
Casu Marzu is usually produced in late June when the local sheep milk begins to change as the animals enter their breeding season and the grass dries out from the summer heat.
The coastal city of Alghero in Sardinia.
MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images
If a warm sirocco wind blows on the day of the cheese-making, the magic that transforms the cheese works even harder. Fancello says the cheese has a weaker structure, making the fly easier to work with.
After three months, the delicacy is ready.
Mario Murrocu, 66, keeps alive the traditions of casu marzu on his farm, Agriturismo Sa Mandra, near Alghero in northern Sardinia. It also keeps 300 sheep and hosts visitors to its trattoria and keeps alive the traditions of casu marzu.
“You know when a casu marzu uniform will be made,” he says. “You can see it from the unusual spongy texture of the paste,” says Murrocu.
Today, this is not as lucky as the ideal conditions used by cheesemakers to secure as many casu marzu as possible. They have also found a way to use glass jars to preserve the cheese, which traditionally never lasted beyond September, for years.
The unusual Sardinian cheese dates back to Roman times.
Although respected, the legal status of cheese is a gray area.
Casu marzu is registered as a traditional product of Sardinia and is therefore locally protected. It has also been outlawed by the Italian government since 1962 due to laws banning the consumption of food contaminated with parasites.
Those who sell cheese can be fined up to 50,000 euros (about $ 60,000), but Sardinians laugh when they ask about the ban on their favorite cheese.
Research shows that consuming them could help reduce carbon dioxide emissions associated with animal husbandry and help alleviate the climate crisis. Roberto Flore, head of Sardinia at Skylab FoodLab, the food change laboratory at the Danish Technical University’s Innovation Center, has long studied the concept of insect consumption. For a few years, he led the research and development team at the Nordic Food Lab – part of the three-star Michelin NOMA restaurant – trying to find ways to introduce insects into our diet.
“Many cultures associate the insect with one ingredient,” says Flore. That said, Sardinians prefer cheese to daisy and are often terrified of the idea that people eat scorpions or crickets in Thailand.
Flore says he has traveled the world to study how different cultures approach insects as food, and he believes that while psychological barriers make it difficult to radically change eating habits, this consumption is widespread.
Insect consumption is more common in countries such as Thailand.
PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP via Getty Images
“How do you define edible foods?” says: “Every region of the world has a different way of eating insects.”
He is convinced that Sardinian delicacy is safe to eat.
“I think no one has ever died eating casu marzu. If they did, they might have been drunk. You know, when you eat it, you also drink a lot of wine.”
Flore hopes that casu marzu will soon reduce its illegal status and become a symbol of Sardinia – not because of its unusual production, but because it is emblematic of other foods that are now disappearing because they do not match modern general tastes.
The islanders and researchers hope that the European Union will soon rule in their favor.
Until then, anyone who wants to try it should ask when it arrives in Sardinia.
For those who want to put an end to their worries about what they eat, it offers an authentic experience reminiscent of a time when nothing was thrown away and when the limits of what was edible or not were no less well defined.
Cheesemonger Murrocu says that, appropriately, the locals keep an open mind about the best way to eat casu marzu, but some well-known local delicacies are known to help it glide more easily.
“We spread the cheese on a wet cherry, and eat it,” he says. “But you can eat it as you wish, as long as there is some formaggio marcio and a good cannon wine.”