Casu marzu: the world’s ‘most dangerous’ cheese

(CNN) — The Italian island of Sardinia is located in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea and looks towards Italy from a distance. Surrounded by a 1,849-mile coastline of white sand beaches and emerald green waters, the island’s interior rises rapidly to form hills and impenetrable mountains.

And it’s within these tight curves that herders produce casu marzu, a maggot-infested cheese that was named the world’s most dangerous cheese in 2009 by the Guinness World Record.

cheese skipper flies, piophila caseilay their eggs in cracks that form in cheese, usually fiore sardo, the island’s salty pecorino.

The maggots hatch, make their way through the pasta, digesting proteins in the process and transforming the product into a soft creamy cheese.

Then the cheesemonger rips open the top—which is nearly untouched by maggots—to scoop out a spoonful of the creamy treat.

It is no time for the faint of heart. At this point, the larvae inside begin to squirm like crazy.

Some locals spin the cheese through a centrifuge to fuse the maggots with the cheese. Others like it au naturel. They open their mouths and eat everything.

Casu marzu is made with sheep's milk.

Casu marzu is made with sheep’s milk.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

If you can overcome the understandable disgust, marzu has a taste that is intense with memories of the Mediterranean meadows and spicy with an aftertaste that lasts for hours.

Some say it is an aphrodisiac. Others say it can be dangerous to human health as maggots can survive the bite and cause myiasis, microperforations in the gut, but so far no such case has been associated with casu marzu.

“The maggot infestation is the enchantment and delight of this cheese,” said Paolo Solinas, a 29-year-old Sardinian gastronome.

He says some Sardinians cringe at the thought of casu marzu, but others who grew up on a lifetime of salty pecorino unabashedly love the strong flavors.

“Some herders see the cheese as a uniquely personal delight, something that only a select few can try,” adds Solinas.

Archaic cuisine

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It is illegal to sell or buy casu marzu.

Giovanni Fancello

When tourists visit Sardinia, they usually find themselves in a restaurant serving porceddu sardo, a slow-roasted suckling pig, visit bakeries selling pane carasau, a traditional wafer-thin flat bread, and meet shepherds producing fiore sardo, the pecorino cheese from the island.

But if you are adventurous enough, it is possible to find the casu marzu. It should not be seen as a weird attraction, but as a product that keeps alive an old tradition and hints at what the future of food could look like.

Giovanni Fancelo, a 77-year-old Sardinian journalist and gastronome, spent his life researching the local food history. He takes it back to the 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 Fancelo.

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The cheese can only be produced at certain times of the year when the sheep’s milk is good.

Alice Mastinu

According to Fancelo, there is no written record of Sardinian recipes until 1909. That’s when Vittorio Agnetti, a doctor from the Modena mainland, traveled to Sardinia and collected six recipes in a book called “La nuova cucina delle specialità regionali”.

“But we’ve always eaten worms,” ​​Fancelo says. “Pliny the Elder and Aristotle talked about it.”

Ten other Italian regions have their variant of maggot-infested cheese, but while the products are considered one-off elsewhere, casu marzu is an intrinsic part of Sardinian food culture.

The cheese has 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 with different types of milk.

‘Magic and Supernatural Events’

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

Fancelo grew up in the town of Thiesi with his father Sebastiano, who was a shepherd who made casu marzu. Facello led his family’s sheep to grazing grounds around rural Monte Ruju, lost in the clouds, where magic would take place.

He remembers that casu marzu was a divine gift to his father. If his cheeses didn’t get infested with maggots, he’d be desperate. Some of the cheese he produced stayed 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’s milk begins to change as the animals enter their reproductive season and the grass dries from the summer heat.

The coastal town of Alghero in Sardnina.

The coastal town of Alghero in Sardnina.

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

When a warm sirocco wind blows on cheese-making day, the cheese-transforming magic works even harder. Fancelo says it’s because the cheese has a weaker texture, making the fly’s job easier.

After three months, the delicacy is ready.

Mario Murrocu, 66, keeps casu marzu traditions alive at his farm, Agriturismo Sa Mandra, near Alghero in northern Sardinia. He also keeps 300 sheep and receives guests in his trattoria, keeping casu marzu traditions alive.

“You know when a form becomes casu marzu,” he says. “You can tell by the unusual spongy texture of the pasta,” Murrocu says.

Today, this is not so much a matter of luck, but of the ideal conditions that cheese farmers now use to ensure as much casu marzu as possible. They’ve also come up with a way to use glass jars to store the cheese, which traditionally never lasted past September for many years.

High fines

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Sardinia’s unusual cheese dates back to Roman times.

Alice Mastinu

Though revered, the cheese’s legal status is a gray area.

Casu marzu is registered as a traditional product of Sardinia and is therefore protected locally. Yet it has been considered illegal by the Italian government since 1962 due to laws banning the consumption of parasite-contaminated food.

Those selling the cheese can face hefty fines of up to €50,000 (about $60,000), but Sardinians laugh when asked about the ban on their beloved cheese.

Research shows that their consumption could help reduce the CO2 emissions associated with livestock farming and help alleviate the climate crisis.
Roberto Flore, the Sardinian head of Skylab FoodLab, the food systems change laboratory at the Innovation Center of the Technical University of Denmark, has long studied the concept of insect consumption.
For a few years, he led the research and development team at Nordic Food Lab — part of the three-Michelin-star NOMA restaurant — that tried to find ways to include insects in our diet.

“Many cultures associate the insect with an ingredient,” Flore says. That said, Sardinians prefer cheese over maggots and are often shocked by the idea that people in Thailand eat scorpions or crickets.

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

open minded

Insect consumption is more common in countries like Thailand.

Insect consumption is more common in countries like Thailand.

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP via Getty Images

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

He is convinced that the Sardinian delicacy is safe to eat.

“I don’t think anyone ever died eating casu marzu. If they did, they might have been drunk. You know, if you eat it, you drink a lot of wine.”

Flore hopes that casu marzu will soon lose its clandestine 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 it does not fit into modern mainstream tastes.

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

Until then, anyone who wants to taste it should ask around when they arrive in Sardinia.

For those willing to put aside their worries about what they eat, it offers an authentic experience that recalls a time when nothing was thrown away and when the boundaries of what was edible or no less well-defined were defined.

Cheesemonger Murrocu says that, fittingly, locals have an open mind about the best way to eat casu marzu, but a few other regional treats are known to make it slide down easier.

“We spread the cheese on wet pane carasau, and we eat it,” he says. “But you can eat it any way you want, as long as there’s some formaggio marcio and a good cannonau wine.”

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