Casu marzu: the “most dangerous” cheese in the world

(CNN) – The Italian island of Sardinia is located in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, looking at Italy from afar. Surrounded by 1,849km of coastline of white sand beaches and emerald waters, the island’s hinterland landscape rises rapidly to form rugged hills and mountains.

And it is precisely within these angular curves that shepherds produce casu marzu, a cheese infested with worms that, in 2009, the Guinness World Record proclaimed the most dangerous cheese in the world.

the captain of cheese flies, Piofila Caseithey lay their eggs in the cracks that form in the cheese, usually Fiore Sardo, the salty pecorino of the island.

The worms hatch, making their way through the dough, digesting the proteins in the process and turning the product into a soft, creamy cheese.

Then the cheese smashes the top – which is nearly untouched by worms – to scoop up a spoonful of the creamy delicacy.

This is not a time for the faint of heart. At this point, the larvae inside start writing frantically.

Some locals spin the cheese through a juicer to combine the worms with the cheese. Others like it natural. I open my mouth 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, the marzu has an intense flavor with references to Mediterranean pastures and spicy with an aftertaste that lasts for hours.

Some say it is an aphrodisiac. Others say so it could be dangerous for human health as the worms could survive the bite and create myiasis, microperforations in the intestine, but so far no such case has been linked to the casu marzu.

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

He says that some Sardinians cringe at the thought of casu marzu, but others who grew up with a life of salty pecorino cheekily love its strong flavors.

“Some shepherds see cheese as a unique personal pleasure, something that only a select few can experience,” adds Solinas.

Archaic cuisine

casu marzu 2-1

It is illegal to sell or buy casu marzu.

Giovanni Fancello

When tourists visit Sardinia, they usually end up in a restaurant serving porceddu sardo, a slowly roasted suckling pig, visit the bakers who sell pane carasau, a traditional paper-thin focaccia, and meet the shepherds who produce the Sardinian flower. , the pecorino of the island.

Still, if you’re adventurous enough, casu marzu can be found. It shouldn’t be seen as a strange attraction, but a product that keeps an ancient tradition alive and suggests what the future of food could be like.

Giovanni Fancello, a 77-year-old Sardinian journalist and gastronome, has spent his life researching the history of local food. He traced it back to a time when Sardinia was a province of the Roman Empire.

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

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

Alice Mastino

There is no written record of Sardinian recipes until 1909, according to Fancello. It was then that Vittorio Agnetti, a doctor from the Modena mainland, went to Sardinia and wrote six recipes in a book entitled “The new cuisine of regional specialties”.

“But we always ate worms,” ​​says Fancello. “Pliny the Elder and Aristotle talked about it”.

Ten other Italian regions have their own variant of worm-infested cheese, but while products elsewhere are considered one-offs, casu marzu is intrinsically part of Sardinian food culture.

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

‘Magical and supernatural events’

Gourmets inspired by the exploits of chefs like Gordon Ramsay often come in search of cheese, says Fancello. “They ask us: ‘How is casu marzu made?’ It is part of our history. We are children of this food. It is the result of chance, of magical and supernatural events “.

Fancello grew up in the municipality of Thiesi with his father Sebastiano, who was a shepherd who made casu marzu. Facello led his family’s sheep into the pastures around rural Ruju Mountain, lost in the clouds, where magic was believed to occur.

Remember that, for his father, casu marzu was a divine gift. If his cheeses weren’t infested with worms, he would be desperate. Some of the cheeses he produced remained for the family, others went to friends or people who requested it.

Casu Marzu is typically made in late June, when the milk from local sheep begins to change as the animals enter their breeding season and the grass dries up from the summer heat.

The coastal town of Alghero in Sardinia.

The coastal town of Alghero in Sardinia.

MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images

If a warm sirocco wind blows on the day of cheese production, the magic of cheese processing works even more. Fancello says it’s because the cheese has a weaker structure, making the fly’s job easier.

After three months, the delicacy is ready.

Mario Murrocu, 66, keeps the traditions of casu marzu alive on his farm, Sa Mandra farmhouse, near Alghero in the north of Sardinia. He also raises 300 sheep and hosts guests in his restaurant, and keeps alive the traditions of the casu marzu.

“You know when a module will become casu marzu,” he says. “You see it from the unusual spongy texture of the dough,” says Murrocu.

Nowadays, this is not so much a matter of luck as the ideal conditions that cheese makers are now using to secure as many casu marzu as possible. They also devised a way to use glass jars to store the cheese, which has traditionally never lasted beyond September, for years.

high fines

casu marzu -5

The unusual cheese of Sardinia dates back to the Roman era.

Alice Mastino

Although revered, the legal status of the cheese is a gray area.

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

Those who sell the cheese can pay high fines of up to 50,000 euros (about 60,000 dollars), but Sardinians laugh when asked about the ban on their beloved cheese.

Research shows that their consumption could help reduce the carbon dioxide emissions associated with animal husbandry and help alleviate the climate crisis.
Roberto Flore, the Sardinian leader Skylab FoodLabthe food system change laboratory of the innovation pole of the Technical University of Denmark has long studied the concept of insect consumption.
For some years he drove the Nordic FoodLab research and development team – part of the three Michelin stars NO BUT restaurant – trying to figure out how to include insects in our diet.

“Many cultures associate the insect with an ingredient,” says Flore. That said, Sardinians prefer cheese to worm and are often horrified that scorpions or crickets are eaten in Thailand.

Flore says she has traveled around the world to study 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 min

The consumption of insects is more common in countries like Thailand.

The consumption of insects is more common in countries like Thailand.

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP via Getty Images

“How do you define edible food?” 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, maybe they were drunk. You know, when you eat it, you also drink a lot of wine.”

Flore hopes that the 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 they don’t suit modern mainstream tastes.

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

Until then, those who want to taste it will have to ask around when it will arrive in Sardinia.

For those willing to suspend worries about what they’re eating, it offers an authentic experience reminiscent of a time when nothing was thrown away and the boundaries of what was edible or not were less well defined.

Cheesemonger Murrocu says that, fittingly, the locals keep an open mind on the best way to eat casu marzu, but some other regional delicacies have been known to help it slide down more easily.

“We spread the cheese on wet carasau bread and eat it,” he says. “But you can eat it as you like, as long as there’s some rotten cheese and a good cannonau.”