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Casu marzu: The world’s ‘most dangerous’ cheese

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(CNN) – The Italian island of Sardinia is located in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, overlooking Italy from a distance. Surrounded by a coastline of 1,849 kilometers of white sand beaches and emerald waters, the interior landscape of the island rises rapidly to form impermeable hills and mountains.

And it is within these nerve-wracking curves that shepherds produce casu marzu, a larval-infested cheese that, in 2009, the Guinness World Record proclaimed the most dangerous cheese in the world.

The cheese pattern flies, Piophila casei, they lay eggs in cracks that form in the cheese, usually fiore sardo, the island’s salty pecorino.

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

Then the cracks in the cheese open the top, almost intact by the worms, to remove a tablespoon of the creamy delicacy.

This is not a time for the weak. At this point, the larvae inside begin to twist frantically.

Some locals spin the cheese through a centrifuge to fuse the worms with the cheese. Others like au naturel. They open their mouths and eat everything.

The casu marzu is made with sheep's milk.

The casu marzu is made with sheep’s milk.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

If you are able to overcome the understandable disgust, March has an intense flavor reminiscent of Mediterranean pastures and spicy with a aftertaste that lasts for hours.

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

“The lobster infestation is the spell and delight of this cheese,” says Paolo Solinas, a 29-year-old Sardinian gourmet.

He says that some Sardinians are crushed at the thought of casu marzu, but others who grow up with a lifetime of salty pecorino love their strong flavors.

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

Archaic cuisine

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It is illegal to sell or buy casu marzu.

Giovanni Fancello

When tourists visit Sardinia, they usually end up in a restaurant serving Sardinian porceddu, a slowly toasted piglet, visit bakers selling carasau panel, a traditional flat paper thin bread, and meet shepherds who produce fiore sardo, the pecorino cheese of the island.

However, if you are adventurous enough, it is possible to find the casu marzu. It should not be seen as a strange attraction, but as a product that keeps alive an ancient tradition and hints at what the future of food might look like.

Giovanni Fancello, a 77-year-old Sardinian journalist and gastronome, spent his life researching the history of local food. It dates 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.

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

Alice Mastinou

According to Fancello, there was no written record of Sardinian prescriptions until 1909. That was when Vittorio Agnetti, a physician from mainland Modena, traveled to Sardinia and compiled six prescriptions in a book called “La nuova cucina delle specialità regionali” .

“But we’ve always eaten worms,” Fancello says. “Pliny the Elder and Aristotle talked about it.”

Ten other Italian regions have their lobster-infested cheese variant, but while products elsewhere are considered punctual, the casu marzu is intrinsically part of Sardinian food culture.

The cheese has several different names, such as casu becciu, casu fattittu, hasu muhidu, formaggio marcio. Each subregion of the island has its own way of producing it using different types of milk.

“Magical and supernatural events”

Diners inspired by the exploits of chefs like Gordon Ramsay often come in search of cheese, Fancello says. “We are asked, ‘How is March done?’ “It’s part of our history. We are children of this food. It’s the result of chance, magic and supernatural events.”

Fancello grew up in the city of Thiesi with his father Sebastiano, who was a pastor who made casu marzu. Facello took his family’s sheep to pastures around rural Monte Ruju, lost in the clouds, where magic was believed to pass.

He remembers 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 were left for the family, others went to friends or people who asked for them.

The Casu Marzu usually occurs in late June when local sheep’s milk begins to change as the animals enter breeding season and the grass dries out in the summer heat.

The coastal city of Alghero, in Sardnina.

The coastal city of Alghero, in Sardnina.

MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images

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

After three months, the delight is ready.

Mario Murrocu, 66, keeps alive the casu casu marzu traditions on his farm, Agriturismo Sa Mandra, near Alghero in northern Sardinia. It also keeps 300 sheep and welcomes guests to its trattoria and keeps alive the casu marzu traditions.

“You know when a form will become a March case,” he says. “You see it from the unusual fluffy texture of the pasta,” Murrocu says.

Today, this does not depend so much on luck, but on the ideal conditions that cheesemakers now use to ensure as much casu marzu as possible. They have also discovered a way to use glass jars to preserve cheese, which traditionally never lasted beyond September, for years.

High fines

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The unusual Sardinian cheese dates back to Roman times.

Alice Mastinou

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

The casu marzu is registered as a traditional Sardinian product and is therefore locally protected. However, the Italian government has been considering it illegal since 1962 due to laws banning the consumption of parasite-infected foods.

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

Research shows that its consumption could help reduce the carbon dioxide emissions associated with livestock and help alleviate the climate crisis.
Roberto Flore, head of Sardinia Skylab FoodLab, the food system change laboratory of the Innovation Center of the Technical University of Denmark, has long studied the concept of insect consumption.
For a few years, he directed the Nordic food laboratory research and development team, which is part of three Michelin stars NOMA restaurant: try to figure out ways to include insects in our diet.

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

Flore says he 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 alter eating habits, this consumption is widespread.

Open mind

Insect consumption is more common in countries like Thailand.

Insect consumption is more common in countries like Thailand.

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP via Getty Images

“How is edible food defined?” “Every region of the world has a different way of eating insects,” he says.

He is convinced that the delicacy of Sardinia is safe to eat.

“I don’t think anyone has 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 casu marzu will soon cease to be clandestine and become a symbol of Sardinia, not because of its unusual production, but because it is emblematic of other foods that are disappearing now because they do not fit modern tastes.

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

Until then, anyone who wants to taste it will have to ask when they arrive in Sardinia.

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

Cheese Murrocu says that appropriately, locals keep an open mind about the best way to eat casu marzu, but some other regional delicacies have been known that help it go down more easily.

“We spread the cheese over moist glass carasau and eat it,” he says. “But you can eat it however you want, as long as there is a frame cheese and a good cannonau wine.”

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