When I was 18, in 1974, I went with my mother to France. I’d been there before – my mother was born in France. But on this trip we were not only going to visit family in her lovely hometown of Nancy, we were also going to visit my mother’s aunt. Because I was born in the U.S., I’d never met her.
Tâti, as she was known, lived in Corsica, the island off of the southern coast of France. See the little pale green island north of Sardinia?
To get there, we had to take a bumpy (understatement) ferry from Nice into Ajaccio. Then we were driven to Tâti’s home up mountainous roads in an ancient Deux Chevaux.
Tâti owned a bar tabac in a quaint hilltop village. Her bar was pretty typical – a small, dark place that had more outdoor seating than indoor. Locals came by every day to drink, which is typical in Europe. Tâti also cooked some food in the back for customers. And when my mother and I showed up, it was no holds barred. She was very excited about our visit.
To start, we all sat outside and enjoyed the sunshine. My mother was served some fancy aperitif that she said tasted like cough syrup. Not being much of a drinker, she eventually tossed it into a potted plant, without anyone knowing, of course. I thought that was pretty funny.
Next, out came the cheese. But not your everyday cheese, mind you, it was a local specialty. And it was moving.
My mother and I took a closer look at this wheel of cheese and there were maggots on it, 100’s of them, happily chomping away on the cheese. I thought I was going to pass out. My mother, who was raised on just about everything, and could eat just about anything, nearly passed out as well.
I’ve written before about how I tend to be a food snob, although my tastes were limited until my 20’s. But I’d like to think that I was born a cheese connoisseur. I love cheese. But connoisseur or not, there was no way I was eating maggots.
Recently I was remembering this “experience” and decided to google the cheese – and I found it! It’s called Casu Marzu. Here are a few excerpts from Wikipedia so you can truly appreciate this cheese:
“Derived from Pecorino, Casu Marzu goes beyond typical fermentation to a stage most would consider decomposition, brought about by the digestive action of the larvae of the cheese fly Piophila casei. These larvae are deliberately introduced to the cheese, promoting an advanced level of fermentation and breaking down of the cheese’s fats. The texture of the cheese becomes very soft, with some liquid (called lagrima, from Latin for “tear”) seeping out. The larvae themselves appear as translucent white worms, about 8 millimetres (0.3 in) long. When disturbed, the larvae can launch themselves for distances up to 15 centimetres (6 in). Some people clear the larvae from the cheese before consuming while others do not.
Casu marzu is created by leaving whole Pecorino cheese outside with part of the rind removed to allow the eggs of the cheese fly to be layed in the cheese. A female Piophila casei can lay more than five hundred eggs at one time. The eggs hatch and the larvae begin to eat through the cheese. The acid from the maggots’ digestive system breaks down the cheese… a typical casu marzu will contain thousands of these maggots.
Casu marzu is considered to be unsafe to eat by Sardinian aficionados when the maggots in the cheese have died. Because of this, only cheese in which the maggots are still alive is usually eaten, although allowances are made for cheese that has been refrigerated, which can kill the maggots.
Because the larvae in the cheese can launch themselves when disturbed, diners hold their hands above the cheese to prevent the maggots from leaping. Those who do not wish to eat live maggots place the cheese in a sealed paper bag. The maggots, starved for oxygen, writhe and jump in the bag, creating a “pitter-patter” sound. When the sounds subside, the maggots are dead and the cheese can be eaten.”
Fortunately the rest of the trip was not as memorable as the cheese. Corsica is beautiful. I remember walking out into the Mediterranean water for what seemed a mile, the water only reaching my knees. And it was a clear, aqua blue. There were coral vendors dotted along the beach streets.
Unfortunately it was the last time I saw my great aunt, on that visit. At that time I was attending college in California, and it would be years before I got back to France. But I have some pretty special memories of that trip.
And I also know, speaking as a big-time cheese lover, that I do have my limits when it comes to cheese!
If you’re really interested is this phenomenon, check out the you-tube videos on casu marzu! It’s fascinating!