Whether whispered in hushed tones or recounted as a cautionary tale, casu marzu defies ordinary. It’s a proscribed Sardinian cheese. Made liquid through the digestive action of maggots!! Although not legally sold either in Italy — or elsewhere — the cheese retains an active symbolic life thanks to its fierce tradition, singular preparation and scarcity.
My first encounter with casu marzu wasn’t an encounter at all, but nevertheless the cheese wiggled into my consciousness like the worms wriggling inside. It was Saturday night at the Irish Pub in Pavia and I was drinking not-great beer with my French friends, Agathe and Alex. Mattia and Salvatore, the Italian first years Alex met in ‘Business English’, were there too. In patchy Italian we discussed everything from the proper pronunciation of ‘Bastille’ to Agathe’s tendency to buy Gorgonzola piccante to substitute for her preferred Roquefort. Mattia laughed, animated and high pitched. Being from Sardinia, he considered Gorgonzola, and other smelly cheeses, an odd Northern affectation. But he did enjoy casu marzu.
In Sardinian dialect, casu marzu means rotten cheese, or formaggio marcio. Made since who-knows-when, to make the cheese the top is cut off a wheel of fiore sardo, a lightly smoked cheese made from a mix of sheep and cow milk that’s aged from two to four months (‘Casu Marzu’, ‘Fiore Sardo’ Slow Food Dictionary to Italian Regional Cooking 135, 230). Once decapitated, larvae of cheese fly Piophila casei enter the cheese. The cheese maker may place the larvae inside, or may put the open cheese in a place where the flies live. Once inside, the worms reproduce and quickly multiply, excreting acid that liquefies the cheese and causes it to rot. While there is little information available about how long the cheese should ripen, Sardinians maintain that as long as the maggots squirm, the cheese is safe to eat. Typically spread on pane carasau, a thin and crunchy Sardinian flatbread, the cheese’s pungent flavour supposedly lingers in the mouth for hours after eating.
‘È buono! No si rende conto dei vermi.’ It’s good! You don’t notice the worms. Mattia mimed spreading a bit of cheese on bread, then savoured it slowly. The rest of us couldn’t hide our disgust. We’d accept mould, we’d accept stink, we’d accept weird Italian bars with bad beer, but we couldn’t get over squirming insects and visible rot.
While East Asian cultures, where cheese is largely absent, argue that the coagulated dairy tastes of rot, those from turophilic countries with a history of cheese production and consumption might be startled to experience a similar disgust. But, as I was reminded when I tried a fudgy, molasses-like 300 day aged Gorgonzola, a cheese’s flavour needs to be easily identifiable as ‘cheese’ to be delicious. When the expected balance of nutty-sweet-salty-funky that we recognize as positive changes, our experience of cheese shifts from can’t-stop-eating to stay-away.
Neither this balance, nor lucid notes on taste and nuance, appears in articles describing casu marzu. Instead, these narratives emphasize the shock factor inherent in eating a product teeming with creepy crawlies. Our disgust is immediate and the immediate response is repulsion at consuming something so visibly alive. The refutation of living food appears in countless other ways in Western cultures. We deem Greenlanders and other Atlantic-based Arctic-dwellers ‘Eskimos’ — eaters of raw meat — to divorce us from the consumption of uncooked, nearly alive, flesh. It’s also been argued that the popularity of hyper-processed consumables, prevalence of overcooked meat and legislation against raw milk is a cultural refutation of consuming the living: we want our food as far away from life to avoid facing our own mortality. Casu marzu typifies this dynamic not only through the vermin crawling around inside, but also through its visible rot. We’re repulsed by casu marzu not necessarily because it would taste so horrible, but because our culture refuses to recognize it as food.
From its observable rot to infestation, casu marzu demonstrates Western society’s stratified relationship with the dynamic between living and decaying typified in cheese. On one hand, we’re revere rich, salty, nutty, sweet coagulated dairy. On the other hand, since we are ultimately consuming semi-rotten food when we ingest cheese, the difference between fetish and repulsion treads a fine line. Reading or hearing a story about casu marzu forces us to confront this tension, revealing turbulent emotions not associated with safe cheddar or fancy parmigiano. Sardinia’s famous rotten cheese scares us and fascinates us because it reveals the line between attraction and disgust aren’t as intrinsic as we perceive them to be.