It started with a book that I bought for my daughter that was filled with fun facts about all kinds of topics from around the world. One section of facts was about gross things. It referenced a type of cheese from Sardinia. Since we were talking about our vacation plans at the time, my daughter keyed in on this particular fact. When I came home from work, she couldn’t wait to tell me about this disgusting delicacy from our chosen vacation destination. Casu Marzu, AKA wormy cheese, is made from a round of pecorino, that is allowed to decompose enough that the larvae of the cheese fly (piophila casei) are able to eat it. The flies find a crack in the cheese and lay their eggs inside. Those eggs hatch, and the maggots begin to eat the cheese. They grow to fill the inside of the round and when the top starts to slump, it is ready to eat. The cheese begins as a soft pecorino, ages to a hard pecorino, and then the worms turn it into a very strong cheese, similar to bleu cheese, but creamy like a brie. My immediate reply was, “I’m going to eat that.” I think she thought I was joking. I think I thought I was joking, but I started working on putting the pieces together.
My first stop was Google which led me to some information including these facts:
It is illegal to sell because the EU deems it to be impossible to sanitize and unsafe to eat.
It is mostly, maybe, kinda safe to eat. In some cases the worms can survive in the human digestive tract and cause some problems.
You are supposed to eat the worms along with the cheese. The worms are alive when you eat them. If they die, the cheese has gone bad.
My second stop was a conversation with my Italian teacher Marco. He informed me that the Sardinians are very proud of their cheese and that someone would probably help me find it. He said that the Sardinians believe they should be able to continue to sell the cheese and that it is a grave injustice that they are blocked from doing so because some bureaucrat in the EU thinks it is gross. It is a heritage product with a long tradition of production and consumption. He advised me to chat up local shepherds, chefs, and bar patrons and try to gain their trust. He advised that they take a great risk of big fines if they sell the cheese so they might not be particularly willing to talk to foreigners about it.
I then reached out to my other Italian instructor, Stefania. I was hesitant to reach out to her at first, because she is a vegetarian and I knew she would not like my idea. She was a good sport and she helped me construct some phrases that I might use to procure my illicit cheese. Like, “Potrebbe dirmi dove posso comprare il casu marzu?” Would you please tell me where I can find some wormy cheese? She then connected me with a local who she said might offer me some advice on finding it.
I doubled my Italian lessons to 2 per week with each instructor. I spent my lunch hours, my commuting hours, and my evenings studying. I worked on small talk, particularly regarding shepherds and cheese making. I knew I would never be able to pass for a local, especially since many Sardinians speak Sardo which is not like Italian at all. I figured if I could at least get good enough to seem like an American that moved to Italy, that might be good enough. I began corresponding with several Sardinian Instagram people and I asked each of them for advice on how to find the wormy cheese. They were all quick to tell me that the casu marzu was not for foreigners. Finding that the cheese was specifically extra forbidden for me made me want it even more.
When I landed in Olbia, I got right to work. I asked the owner of the house we rented if he had any leads. He said he thought it was gross and had never tried it. That was discouraging. I went into the city of Olbia. With around 60,000 people, it is the fourth largest city in Sardinia. I started making inquiries. The first one did not go well. I went into a small gelato shop and bought some gelato. Then I got excited and asked about the cheese a bit too abruptly. The woman at the counter quickly and with furrowed brows, told me “that is not for you,” then she walked away. Her associate came over and asked what I said. He advised that I should stop sniffing around for the cheese in town. He told me the health inspectors check up on the restaurants in the city and the people in Olbia wouldn’t be willing to talk to me. He said to go inquire in a town called Pardu. So, at least I had a lead, ala Carmen San Diego.
I emailed my local contact from my Italian instructor and inquired about the cheese. He responded with a great list of foods that I should try and he was very supportive of my Italian language studies, but he thought I would have a hard time finding the cheese. He advised the same things the others had said. I should talk to locals, particularly in rural areas. So, I went to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere on a farm and tried to start a conversation. Alas, I was not able to work in a request for my black-market pecorino. The next few days were full of adventures and I was not able to make any more attempts.
On the 5th day of our visit to Sardinia, we moved down to Arbatax. On the way there, we got stuck in a traffic jam of sheep crossing the road being herded by several shepherds and two dogs. Good sign. When I got to the front desk, I encountered 2 very friendly men who spoke pretty good English, but were very appreciative when I tried to speak Italian. We switched the conversation over to Italian and I tried to keep up, which seemed to make them much more talkative. I was able to get a lot of good advice from them and I was able to work casu marzu into the conversation in a much more natural way. I got my first positive response. My new friend said, “You want the cheese? I know a guy.” He said he knew of a restaurant that had a supply of the wormy cheese. He could make me a reservation at this place at a quiet table in the back. I could go in there and eat my dinner and at some point in the meal, they would bring me the cheese, but that I was not to ask about it or say the name at any point. I didn’t know what to expect, but it all sounded very old-timey gangster. The only hitch was that I probably wouldn’t be able to take any pictures. So, I filed that under my safety option and I went in search of a better one.
The following day, I made my way down to the docks to rent a boat. I paid for the boat and then we discovered that the wind would be too bad for me to go out the next day. That resulted in the man needing to void the credit card transaction, but he needed his boss to come show him how to do it, which gave me a good long time to talk to him. He was also very supportive of my Italian language studies and he helped me limp through a few conversations. We talked at length about the history of the island and all the events that led to its current state. He was clearly very proud of his heritage and his culture. I felt like he was the right guy to help me find the cheese, so I asked. He was surprised and wanted to know how I knew about this cheese, which he told me was a powerful aphrodisiac. I told him (and he apparently believed) that I was sincere in my desire to try it. He jumped up and called a shepherd and arranged a deal. He informed me the shepherd would be there are 9:30 the next morning with my cheese.
I arrived promptly at 9:30 the next day, expecting that a shepherd in rural Italy would not be super punctual, but there he was at 9:30 on the dot with cheese in hand. He spoke almost no English, so we made our deal completely in Italian and we talked about how he makes the cheese. We talked about what it means to his culture and he was very proud to share it with me. He offered to export regular pecorino to me, which I plan to do. Sardinian pecorino is outstanding. They have soft, semi soft, and seasoned and all are nothing like what we have at home. They are so full of flavor that I can’t wait to call this guy back and buy some more. Unfortunately, the casu marzu cannot be exported legally, so that is not an option. I bought my cheese, exchanged contact information and went on my way. Of all conversations I had in Italy, this was the richest and most authentic, and it never would have happened without my quest for pushing my food boundaries.
Which brings me to the cheese itself. First, it comes in a paper bag, unsealed, so the bugs can breathe. The maggots are nothing like what you expect. They are not thick and grubby like the ones we know in the states. They are about 3/8” long and very thin like an angel hair pasta. They are all the color of the cheese and they jump around, a lot. Inside the bag, it sounds like popcorn popping. They leap from the cheese and hit the inside of the bag in a constant rhythm that you can hear from several feet away. They are constantly jumping out of the bag everywhere. The cheese on the outside smells not unlike regular pecorino. Occasionally, a small black fly will fly from within the cheese. When you hold the cheese, you can feel the worms writhing inside it. Oh, I forgot to mention, it can’t be cut before you serve it, so you have to buy a whole kilogram round at a time.
To access the part that you eat, you can either cut a hole in the top or you can break it at the seam. You cannot cut it into a wedge because the creamy center would run out. There is a small amount of liquid inside that the Sardinians call “lacrime” or tears. It mixes with the inner cheese to make a nice creamy cheese product. The worms blend in very well, so it is tough to see them, but there are thousands of them. You think you are just seeing cheese, but it is constantly moving. When you scoop out a bite, more worms are exposed and the disturbed worms writhe around and leap off of your spoon or bread. I cracked into this round of cheese with a fair amount of fear. I was very nervous and it wasn’t cheap to buy it, so I was hoping I would get more than just one taste.
I took my first bite and all the fear went away. It was absolutely delicious. It tastes like the strongest bleu cheese that you have ever had. It is a bit ammoniated, but has a creamy finish and a little bit of that blue cheese bitterness. It is a very complex flavor that you have to go back to again and again. I ate a bite of just the cheese. I tried it on pane carasau, a traditional Sardinian bread. Then I tried it on focaccia, then on a pizza crust, then on a slice of pizza. It really kicks pizza up to a whole new level. It was made all the sweeter for the effort I had to put into it. I ate as much as I could because I knew I may never get to try it again. I left Sardinia having achieved my cheese goal, tested my newfound language skills, pushed my food boundaries, and celebrated a culture that I didn’t even know existed a year ago. What a great experience. I have to thank my supportive wife and all of my accomplices in this caper AKA the "BMBACD- Black Market/Back Alley Cheese Deal". Maybe, I need to thank Andrew Zimmern as well, for encouraging all of us to try new things. I recommend eating something scary every chance you get. It’s a lot of fun.