A Desperate Search for Casu Marzu, Sardinia's Illegal Maggot Cheese
When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory said, “because it’s there.” This destiny-invoking statement rang true for me this past summer, when I visited Sardinia. But I wasn't hoping to scale a mountain. (I've never quite understood the allure of courting frostbite and hypoxia at 29,000 feet.) Because it was there, I was searching for a taste of the island's storied, illegal and legendarily gross-sounding casu marzu—maggot cheese.
However, let's note: Mallory never conquered Everest, and in fact he died during his third attempt. It’s a reminder that blind adventurousness comes with risk, and casu marzu had its own.
Like those who’ve ventured up this mountain before me (Andrew Zimmern, for one), I heard warnings of the health risks of eating larvae-infested sheep’s milk cheese. If you don’t remove the maggots or blend them into a spreadable paste, there’s a chance they can survive the passage into your intestines. If this happens, you could experience intense abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and a few other non-life-threatening symptoms that I don’t care to mention. The irony is that you can only eat the cheese if the maggots are still alive, because dead maggots mean the cheese has gone bad—whatever “gone bad” means in this context.
Another risk associated with casu marzu is the legal one. Because of the obvious health concerns, the EU has outlawed the stuff, making it hard to find and expensive to get caught with.
This brings us to the potential upside of eating casu marzu. Apparently, some people think it tastes good. It’s often compared to a particularly ripe gorgonzola—a flavor lent by acids left behind by maggot digestive systems.
The second benefit, as with Mallory’s altitude obsession, is that eating it would allow me to fulfill a desire whose origin I might not be able to place, but is nevertheless very real. I’ve heard about casu marzu; I’ve talked about it; I’ve thought about it—so I need to check it off my list. That impulse, and the potentially good blue-cheese taste, are the reasons I’m going to risk ending up in a Sardinian hospital with side-splitting stomach cramps and a 5,000 Euro fine. So here goes nothing.
My first attempt at locating the cheese is an unmitigated failure. I’m at a tobacco shop in the northeast part of Sardinia, and I ask the old man at the register. “Not to buy it,” I assure him, “just to take pictures.” He looks around the dark, empty room, scratches the back of his bald head, and says, “I don’t know anything about that.” Then he returns to his office in the back of the store, even though I have a newspaper and a large bottle of frizzante water on the counter. I take that as a strong no.
My second attempt is through a friend of a friend who lives in the area. I call him on his flip phone, “Andrea, could you help me with something? I’m looking for casu marzu.” This is followed by five seconds of awkward silence. “You know,” he says, “it’s illegal.” I respond, “Yes, Andrea, I know it’s illegal, but I figured you might know someone who knows someone.” More silence. “No,” he says, “I don’t know anyone.” That’s Day 1.
Day 2 starts off more promisingly. I’m exploring one of Sardinia’s Bronze Age archaeological sites (called nuraghe), talking to our tour guide about the island’s early history as an obsidian trader, when she asks what I do. “I’m a food writer,” I tell her. She asks if I’m writing anything about Sardinia, and I say, “Actually, I’m writing about casu marzu.” She makes a face that says, Please don’t write sensationalized click-bait about my ancestral home, so I explain, “I’m interested in the tradition of it, not the maggots.” Her guard softens. “If you know anyone who can help, I’d really appreciate it.” She ponders my request and smiles, “Let me ask a friend. He will know.” I thank her, we exchange email addresses and part ways.
This being Italy, though, she never gets back to me.
Running out of options, I try the cheese counter at the local supermarket. “Casu marzu?” The cheesemonger looks around at all the customers (it’s lunchtime), then he leans in and whispers, “Come back in 30 minutes.”
When I return, he tells me about a legendary man named Signor Francesco who has a panini truck on the road to the airport. “He sells panini, but he also sells cheese,” the cheesemonger winks knowingly. “Grazie,” I respond and run out the door. When I reach the road by the airport, I am surprised to find two trucks there: one with a long line and a couple of 20-somethings manning it, and one with no line and an old couple sitting, looking tired. I notice a few small flies buzzing around the old man’s head and suddenly it all makes sense: This is Signor Francesco, and he is the key to my casu marzu.
“I’m writing an article about traditional Sardinian food,” I say. He nods. I mention that my family is from Abruzzo and that we have similar culinary traditions: lamb, pecorino, gnocchi, herbal liqueurs. Eventually we get on the topic of casu marzu. After 20 minutes of convincing, he agrees to meet me first thing in the morning, with the cheese.
The next morning at 8 a.m., I drive to the same spot. He’s there and waves me into his truck. “Here it is,” he announces, holding up two cheese orbs with gashes cut into the tops. The maggots are visible and squirming, but they’re a little smaller than I expected, about a millimeter wide and half a centimeter long. And the smell is pungent, but not quite as strong as I expected—it smells like a very strong, aged pecorino. After all the hoopla and terrifying Internet research, my initial reaction is: Really? I question the sensationalization of the cheese. Are maggots really that gross? Where does fermentation end and decomposition begin? When has something officially gone bad? I’m curious what my taste buds will have to say about it.
By the time my friends and I eat the cheese, we’re in the region of Abruzzo and the cheese has been under vacuum seal for two days. We’ve driven up to a medieval mountain village and laid the cheese on a stone wall overlooking some sheep pastures. The smell of the casu marzu has attracted a couple of cheese flies and a middle-aged man named Gastone, who appears to be the village drunk. When he stumbles upon us, he yells, “Marcetto!” which translates to "Rotten cheese!" and goes to fetch a jug of homemade red wine that he claims is “Montepulciano DOP” (it’s not).
Meanwhile, my friends and I are debating whether or not we’re going to die. Apparently, when Signor Francesco vacuum-sealed the cheese, he also suffocated the maggots. The question is whether or not the cheese is safe to eat. The Internet generally discourages the eating of dead-maggot casu marzu. But we might be in the clear, I argue, because technically the cheese didn’t kill the maggots, we did.
Ultimately, one friend abstains from the tasting and one joins me. We cut off three pieces—two for us and one for Gastone—and slowly bring them to our mouths. The smell is extremely sharp, but not like something that’s “gone bad.” The taste is like an extremely ripe gorgonzola, but even spicier and brighter. The spiciness is a little overwhelming for my taste, but a quick swig of Gastone’s wine, with its extremely high alcohol content, washes it all down.
If you can forget about the maggots for a second, casu marzu isn’t that gross. It hasn’t gone bad, and it’s not going to kill you. It’s a strong-tasting, visually unappealing delicacy that people have made and eaten for generations. Casu marzu literally means rotten cheese, but in a way, many of the fermented and aged things we eat are already rotten. They have mold, bacterias, yeasts that you can’t always see, but are there. Sure, maggots are gross in a discernable way that microscopic bacteria never will be, but maybe we should put them in the same category. They are living organisms that aren’t always bad for us and can sometimes, on certain occasions, to some people, be good. As long as you chew them well.