Image Description: A brown ceramic bowl filled with casu marzu cheese surrounded by meats and buckets of olives
A certified BNOC of ‘Top 10 Most Disgusting Foods’ lists and placed as the corner of Libertarian-Right in a recent Oxfess, casu marzu (literally translated as rotten cheese) has never been a particularly popular delicacy outside of Sardinia. Before you judge it, consider that this may come from a place of ignorance, a fear of the unknown, and let me take you on a journey into the depths of Sardinia so you can understand why it exists.
While casu marzu can be found in South Corsica and a few specific regions of mainland Italy, its main homeland are the rolling hills of central Sardinia. Casu marzu is basically their version of blue cheese, in the sense that it is rotten. The USP of it though, is that this is primarily caused by larvae planted by flies that then grow into maggots and live in the cheese, continually eating and in turn softening it with the acid from their digestive systems.
The liquid that sometimes comes out of the cheese is called lagrima, Sardinian for tear, which is incredibly poetic and may be a reflection of the reaction this description is giving you.
So why would anyone eat this? One reason is that casu marzu is a kind of celebration food. Illegal to sell and very traditional, it’s only really brought out at large gatherings for everyone to enjoy.
I want you to imagine you’re sitting in a garden in the countryside in Sardinia. It’s August, suffocatingly dry and the crickets are chirping in the olive trees. You’re at a big family meal and everyone is tipsy from someone’s questionable home made red wine and mirto (liquor from Sardinian berries).
How could this get any better? Your grandad’s old friend from the mountains arrives with a big plastic white box. A cheer erupts from the table. As Mountain Man opens the box, the hundreds of maggots that jump out seem to mimic the cheerful atmosphere. He brings it over to you and you try to decline as politely as you can, one of the maggots lands on you and you try not to gip.
Despite the interesting presentation, I’ve been told that casu marzu has a very sharp taste (described as ‘spicy’ by Sardinians, but I’m not convinced). It’s best paired with strong red wine or mirto and spread on Sardinian flatbread. This could be the paper thin pane carasau or bistoccu, which is much tougher. (In all seriousness, pane carasau is peng and I would recommend it if you can find it. Maybe try M&S?)
Have I ever tried it? No, I’m a vegetarian and also it has maggots in, of course I haven’t.
Image credit: Mateo Piras via Flickr