Sardinia and its Illegal Cheese
There are countries that offer far more adventurous eating opportunities than Italy. To someone like Andrew Zimmern, Mr. “if it looks like something no one should eat, I’ll eat it,” Italy likely ranks far down the list of places to go for cuisine that’s exotic or strange.
Unless, that is, you go to Sardinia in search of illegal cheese.
Italians love their cheeses, and you’ll find varieties of cheese made from cow, sheep, and goat milk throughout the country. There are certainly distinct differences among the cheeses of Italy, but only one rises to the level of “shocking.” And that’s casu marzu.
Sardinia’s infamous casu marzu cheese begins its life as a fairly standard pecorino, a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. The sheep on the island have adapated to a less lush environment, and while they still produce a fair amount of milk it’s far less than what other sheep in grassier places might produce. In other words, the pecorino made from a Sardinian sheep’s milk has some distinctive qualities from the start – but not distinctive enough for the Sardinians.
Once this pecorino has had a chance to cure, the cheese is opened up – typically by slicing the top rind off like a lid – and the exposed cheese is left outside in order to attract flies. No, your eyes aren’t decieving you, the cheese makers actually want flies to be drawn to the open pecorino so they’ll lay eggs in the cheese. These so-called “cheese flies” lay their eggs inside the pecorino wheels, and when the larvae start eating their way through the cheese is when it really becomes casu marzu.
As the larvae eat the cheese (and, it has to be said, pass it back out again), this – understandably – changes the flavor and texture of the cheese. It goes from being a relatively standard, hard pecorino to a softer and stronger cheese inside a hard shell.
The larvae aren’t just there to perform the service of transforming the cheese, however, they’re part of the meal. When it’s ready to be eaten, the cheese is scooped out with a spoon or a knife, usually onto traditional Sardinian flatbread, and eaten – maggots and all.
Now, as if this idea weren’t difficult enough to stomach, consider this – the particular maggots that make casu marzu what it is have the ability to jump up to about 6 inches. This means that as you’re putting a piece of cheese-covered bread into your mouth, you may notice larvae flying off in all directions, including at your face. Indeed, it’s said that the maggots have an uncanny ability to land squarely in the eyes. In order to prevent the maggots from leaping off the bread, then, Sardinians put their hands over the meal until it’s deposited safely in their mouths – or they make a sandwich with two pieces of flatbread and clamp their hands over the sides to prevent escaping maggots.
Yes, you’re reading this correctly. The Sardinians actively prevent maggots – jumping maggots, no less – from getting out of the cheese they’re about to eat.
To be fair, some people do prefer to eat the cheese with the maggots removed. In order to do that, the cheese is sealed in a paper bag to suffocate the larvae. They jump from the cheese inside the bag in order to find air, and once the noise of maggots-hitting-bag stops you know they’re all (or mostly) dead and all (or mostly) outside the cheese. Other people will refrigerate the cheese, which also kills the larvae, but the larvae are still inside the cheese when it’s eaten. Many Sardinians refuse to eat casu marzu with anything but live maggots, however, saying the cheese is no longer safe to consume if the larvae are dead.
At the beginning of this article, I called casu marzu “illegal cheese,” and that’s mostly true. Some years ago, the EU banned production of casu marzu fearing it was dangerous to eat. Of course, this led to a black market for casu marzu, until the Sardinians recently came up with a creative way of skirting the EU ban – simply saying the cheese is a “traditional” food means that normal food hygiene rules don’t apply.
>> For some visual aids, be sure to scroll to the bottom of the post to see a couple of casu marzu videos – just don’t do so if you’ve got a sensitive stomach. I can’t be held responsible for your reaction.
Visitor’s Information: What to Know if You Want to Go
If the description of jumpy maggots crawling through the cheese you’re putting in your mouth has you salivating, then there’s only one thing to do – go to Sardinia.
Whereas Sicily is within sight of the Italian mainland, Sardinia is quite a distance offshore – the island is 190 miles from the Italian mainland, and actually closer to French Corsica. Your two best options for getting from Italy to Sardinia, then, are to fly or take a ferry.
Flights are often the cheapest and fastest choice, especially if you can book ahead on one of the budget airlines in Italy – you can sometimes find one-way flights for as little as €25-75, and the trip is typically around an hour (depending on where you’re flying from). Ferry trips are in the 7+ hour range, and although you can get a ticket for under €75 that’s for a solo traveler with no car who books a seat on board (no cabin/bed to sleep in). The flight, if you can find cheap tickets, is the more comfortable option. To get around the island, you’ll need to rent a car – most of Sardinia isn’t accessible by rail, so you’d be stuck in the main cities if you didn’t rent a car (and you’d miss most of the island).
Sardinia is most popular for its beaches, so the beach ciites have all kinds of accommodation in many price ranges. Visitors in August will find the beaches extremely crowded and the lodging (what’s left, anyway) extremely expensive, so either book ahead or go at another time of year. You can look into hotels for your stay or choose Sardinia vacation rentals, which may be cheaper if you’re spending more than a few days in one place.
Just getting to Sardinia is only the first hurdle to getting your hands on casu marzu – since the cheese is still technically illegal, it’s not sold in regular shops. You’ve got to go to the farmers themselves to get the cheese, so ask around and make some friends if you want to try this Sardinian delicacy.
Tom Parker-Bowles goes to Sardinia for Gordon Ramsey’s “The F Word” to see how casu marzu is made:
This is very brief, but it shows you how many maggots can come out of one wheel of casu marzu: