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Casu Marzu – nice Italian cheese, which is illegal and has thousands of maggots by design

Posted November 23, 2019

Italian cheese sounds like quite a treat, right? What about Italian cheese on Italian flat bread somewhere in the middle of  Sardinia? Even better! And what about rotten sheep’s cheese with live maggots that may cause parasitic infection in your intestine and is so bad it is actually illegal? Well, prepare your stomach for the Casu Marzu.

Casu Marzu, quite literally rotten cheese, is a traditional fermented cheese from Sardinia. It is basically pecorino, which already is a hard sheep cheese with quite a strong flavour, which is not up to everyone’s taste. Casu Marzu takes it up a couple of notches, because it is rotten and filled with thousands of live maggots. How could anyone eat it? Well, it’s a delicacy.

Casu marzu is very soft and creamy. Also it has thousands of live maggots living in it. Image credit: Shardan via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Making Casu Marzu is actually not that hard. You take pecorino, remove its rind and leave it outside. Then your friendly helper cheese fly Piophila casei will come and lay eggs in it. These flies don’t eat cheese – their larvae do. P. casei can lay more than 500 eggs at one time, which is good, because you need thousands of those maggots to actually make real Casu Marzu.

Once larvae are hatched, they start consuming the cheese. They eat it bit by bit and it passes through their gastric tract. Just eating and pooping, while people are patiently waiting for the entire cheese wheel to become infested with these creatures. Acid from the gastric tract of the larvae break down the fats in the cheese and make it much fluffier and softer. It actually becomes creamy.

Sardinians consider the cheese ready once it is filled with maggots. And they must be alive (unless you killed them yourself by putting the cheese in the fridge). If larvae are dead, you’re too late and cheese is inedible. But if they are still alive – it’s time to feast.

Locals eat Casu Marzu with all its maggots still in it. Gross? Yeah. Delicious? Probably not, because they eat it with a heavy dose of strong red wine. Casu Marzu has to be spread ontop of a local flatbread. Because P. casei larvae can jump 15 cm away, locals squeeze them between the bread in order to prevent their escape. However, some actually do want them to escape.

Some people don’t like eating larvae. That is why they place the cheese in a plastic bag and seal it. Maggots start suffocating and jump away from the cheese in attempts to escape. Once they are all dead, Casu Marzu can be consumed even by those who do not like eating live maggots.

And you may not want to eat them. Sometimes they survive their journey through the human gastric tract and settle in someone’s intestines, causing a parasitic infection. This and the very fact that the traditional production method is not sanitary, made EU forbid this cheese. It is still being made and sold on the black market though.

Scientists from the University of Sassari developed a hygienic method of production and maybe in the future Casu Marzu will be legal again. On the other hand, tourists already have no problem finding it, but just the sight alone of thousands of maggots wiggling around is enough to discourage them from eating it.

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