Cheese is a delightful snack and a terrific social ice breaker, but casu marzu is probably not what you want to put out with crackers when company comes over. Found in Sardinia, this derivative of Pecorino Sardo is purposefully peppered with live insect larvae, otherwise known as maggots.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The name “casu marzu” translates to “rotten cheese,” which probably wouldn’t appeal to anyone other than a handful of (possibly insane) cheese connoisseurs. Colloquially known as maggot cheese — another name that doesn’t exactly scream “serve with a vintage pinot noir” — casu marzu goes far beyond the typical cheese fermentation. Maggots are introduced to the cheese to nibble it until the texture becomes creamy and liquid oozes out. Apparently, the digestive action of the larvae breaks down the cheese’s fat and causes an advanced level of fermentation that’s really closer to corrosion.
Here’s a tip for those hale and hearty gourmands who have no qualms about stuffing maggot-fermented dairy products down their pie hole: if the casu marzu is any good (that is, according to the standards set by those ludicrous enough to eat larvae-infested cheese), you’ll see maggots eight millimeters in length clearly wriggling around. If the maggots are still moving, Sardinian cheese freaks believe, casu marzu is ready for consumption. If not, the cheese becomes toxic and is no longer safe to eat. Safe is, of course, a relative term, considering the risk of Enteric Myiasis, an intestinal larval infection, that is always a concern when ingesting maggot-ridden cuisine.
Due to such health threats, casu marzu can’t be sold legally in Italy — it must be purchased on the black market for approximately three times the price of regular, larvae-less cheese.
It doesn’t seem to be any easier to get your hands on casu marzu in the US. “I wish I could give you an idea of where to find such a cheese here,” says Shawn Hockert of Seacrest Foods International, “but as an importer I am almost certain it would be illegal to bring in a cheese that contained live insects into the country. This doesn’t mean it isn’t here somehow, but I wouldn’t know where to look. If some local cheese monger is carrying it, either he is openly defying the FDA, or has it stashed somewhere for his special customers.
“At any rate,” adds Hockert, “the appeal is more for sensation than any true gastronomic qualities, in my opinion. While it may be quite tasty, loads of incredible cheeses are made without the assistance of the intestines of fly larvae.”
So next time you’re at a restaurant and happen to notice a cockroach crawling up the wall, instead of indignantly asking your waitress to see a manager, maybe you’ll just ask whether there are any maggots in the house.