Cheese Lover

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

What???

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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.”

I know.

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Fun, huh?

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!

Casu-marzu-animated

89 thoughts on “Cheese Lover

  1. Gasp!!! 😱 I don’t think I could even be inches away from that cheese! One of my good friends is from Corsica, and from the photos she showed me, it’s stunning! An interesting read Mimi, thank you! 😊

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    • I remember we practically had our noses on the cheese, because we knew something was amiss.. fortunately we didn’t disturb them and there’s was no launching!!!

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  2. Mimi
    I love love cheese. Not sure about this cheese, it’s an interesting read. Maybe the combination of strong alcohol from wine counter acts with the live action. If you ever do eat this let us know. Happy Eating…

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  3. Haha! Great story, Mimi. I’ve never had Casu Marzu (and this is the first time I hear of it), but I many years ago I had a boyfriend from Auvergne whose mom would serve a thing called “fromage aux artisous”, which was quite similar to what you describe. It is a raw cow’s milk cheese which is only made in the Puy-en-Velay area, and I never dared try it, as it looks really disturbing. My dad had it once, and didn’t like it at all (though he didn’t mind the larvae). I wonder whether I would try it now if given a chance!

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  4. My dad grew up in Italy and recalls his father and grandfather eating those cheeses with the worms in it. He couldn’t quite get up the nerve to do it himself!

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  5. I love cheese. I do not like maggots. There is no way I would eat this cheese…someone would have to kill the maggots and give it to me without my knowledge. And…then I would probably like it.

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    • It’s from Pecorino, so if you didn’t know about the maggots, it probably would be a great cheese. But the texture is all different because of the maggots, so I don’t know…

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  6. I am all for a high protein diet, but I prefer my protein served in different ways, not jumping, not moving, not having to be asphyxiated in plate ;-) I knew about carsu marzu but had never seen close up and personal. I intend to keep it this way

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  7. “When disturbed, the larvae can launch themselves for distances up to 15 centimetres (6 in).” I am so grossed out right now. And intrigued. This was an awesome post. Personal and informative. Thank you! When I was in high school, I signed us up for a foreign exchange student from Corsica. She lived with us for a few weeks and was so cool. Unfortunately we had a bit of a language barrier and were so young that we didn’t discuss food much, but it was during Passover so she learned the joys of matzoh and macaroons (coconut, not French). I always wonder about her still. Maybe she eats maggoty cheese. Amazing. Thank you, Mimi.

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  8. OMG, no way I would eat this Mimi. I’ve heard about it, because my dad is from Sardinia, but no no…I definitely have my limits….no maggots go in my mouth..dead or alive!!! ;)
    Fun post though :)

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  9. I’ve heard of this cheese, so strange…but do you know what, I would try it (although I’d probably be gagging at the same time!) Stilton used to also be famous for maggots; Daniel Defoe toured England in the 18th century and ate it. I found his quote for you: “we pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.” :)

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  10. Wow! I eat almost anything, but I’m not sure if I could manage that…at least not with the live maggots! But so interesting, thanks for posting! I must have missed your earlier post.

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  11. Eek! I’d like to meet the first person who thought that it would be a good idea to eat cheese that had been infested with maggots. Were they desperate, crazy or just incredibly adventurous?

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  12. Leaping maggots! I have never met a food I would not try but I have never met leaping maggot sandwiches. I’ve eaten live food but maggots, dead or alive isn’t really what I consider to be food. Even if the cheese itself happened to be lovely.

    I have to wonder, who was the first person to eat and sell this cheese and who were the fools he managed to convince into buying his cheese?

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  13. It’s funny. I’ve eaten grubs in Australia and worms in Mexico but am not too sure I’m ready for maggots in my cheese. I sure would like to try it after picking out the wigglers though. Once again, you’ve given me something to go seek out. Thanks.

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  14. Mimi–You’ve outdone yourself–this is a great post! Casu Marzu–ha! I’ve only read about the cheese, never personally experienced it, although I’d definitely give it a shot now. We’re going to Sardinia in October, so I may get a chance. Thanks. Ken

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  15. I’d be very happy to visit Corsica but equally as happy to pass on the cheese! I just couldn’t eat anything with maggots! I’m not surprised your mother felt like throwing up – I think I would too! It’s amazing how there are people out there who would be only too happy to eat cheesy maggots! xx

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  16. No way. I’m adventurous, but not to that extent! I stayed with friend is Quiberon, and they took me to a beautiful seaside restaurant. Deciphering menus is hard for a non-native speaker, even if your conversational French is decent. So I asked for their recommendation. They ordered a dish that amounted to a plate full of sea creatures with all of their heads, tails, antennae, eyeballs, tentacles, etc. I concealed my fight-or-flight instinct and simply asked for instructions on how to dissect them. It was delicious, but I plan to steer clear of this dish in the future!

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