Casu Marzu Cheese Is Elusive, Illegal, And Filled With Maggots

Published February 19, 2018
Updated April 25, 2022

The excretions that pass through their bodies are essential, as they are what gives the cheese its distinctly soft, creamy texture and rich flavor.

Casu Marzu Large

Wikimedia CommonsCasu marzu cheese.

Imagine you’re going on a fabulous trip to Italy. Part of the plan is to take advantage of the famously delicious cuisine, of course. The savory tomato sauces, Margherita pizzas, gelato, wine … the list goes on.

However, in actuality, you may be surprised to find out that old-school Italians consider the delicacy to try is casu marzu — a highly specific type of cheese. Out-of-towners may just call it by a simpler name: maggot cheese. Yes, it contains maggots. Live ones, in fact.

This is important to note. If your casu marzu contains dead maggots, it usually means the cheese has gone bad.

Making Casu Marzu

This interesting cheese goes back to the charming Italian island of Sardinia, located in the Mediterranean Sea. Its production is dwindling, and not many people craft this special cheese in the modern-day world of the squeamish.

Casu marzu takes some time to make, but the process itself is easy. When it’s finished, a casu marzu cheese should contain maggot numbers in the thousands. Intrigued? Read on.

Casu marzu is made from sheep’s milk; step one is to heat the milk and then let it sit for three weeks to curdle. By then it should have a nice crust on it. The next step is to cut that crust off. This makes it inviting for the special cheese flies to enter, who lay their eggs inside.

Afterward, it’s left in a dark hut for two or three months. During that time, the fly eggs hatch into their larvae (known as maggots) and promptly begin to eat the cheese.

The excretions that pass through their bodies are essential, as they are what gives the cheese its distinctly soft, creamy texture and rich flavor.

Presto! At this stage, you have casu marzu. The best taste comparison that can be made is to very ripe gorgonzola cheese. (Though, what you’re actually tasting is larvae excrement.)

What Pairs Well With Maggot Cheese?

Once the casu marzu is acquired, there are a few tips on the correct way to eat it. As previously mentioned, casu marzu is to be consumed when the maggots are still alive. When you take a bite, it’s said you should do so with your eyes closed.

That’s actually not to avoid looking at the maggots as you eat them, but to protect your eyes. When bothered, the maggots will jump up, sometimes as high as six inches. Although whether you consider maggots in your mouth to be worse than your eyes likely comes down to personal preference.

Next tip, it is imperative for one to properly chew and kill the maggots before swallowing. Otherwise, they could technically continue to live in your body, potentially ripping holes through your intestines. The Italians actually beg to differ with this claim, saying “…we’d be full of maggots because we’ve eaten them for a lifetime”.

As far as flavor accompaniment, people enjoy the casu marzu with a moistened flatbread, or prosciutto and melon. It also pairs well with a glass of strong red wine. (The liquid courage may also be helpful for first-timers.)

Casu Marzu Maggot Cheese

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty ImagesCasu marzu is presented in the Disgusting Food Museum on December 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.

The Most Elusive Delicacy

Now, if this bizarre delicacy sounds absolutely amazing to you, and you’ve decided that you must have it, there’s some bad news.

First, it is extremely difficult to get your hands on it, since the sticklers at the EU European Food Safety Authority have banned the cheese.

Therefore, those wishing to eat casu marzu must go through the Italian black market.

Secondly, it’s somewhat of a lost art form. If you’re making casu marzu, the technique has probably been perfected over generations of your family. Since it’s illegal to sell outside Sardinia, it’s mainly kept for friends and family to enjoy.

Sure, casu marzu may come with some caveats. Illegal, yes. Dangerous? Maybe. Offputting? Certainly, to most. But it’s highly sought after for a reason. Sardinians claim the cheese is an aphrodisiac, enjoying it at weddings and other celebrations.

Worms And Dipping Sauce

Wilhelm Thomas Fiege/Wikimedia CommonsWhole roasted insects at a street-food market in Germany.

Could It Be The Food Of The Future?

Making Casu Marzu is an ancient tradition, and could make a comeback as the future of food looks toward sustainability.

Yes, there’s its “banned” status, but in actuality, health repercussions from eating raw maggots are fairly slim — that is, if they don’t originate from feces or garbage. However, there is some risk, hence the restrictions.

In fact, according to Mother Earth News, not only are maggots completely edible, they are a superfood.

Furthermore, most Americans on average consume one to two pounds of insects per year (including maggots) without even realizing it.

This level is deemed safe by the FDA, since their own rules declare the maximum amounts allowed in food.

Given that statistic, perhaps as a society we should attempt to get over our aversions about eating insects. After all, we’re already ingesting them.

“An overpopulated world is going to struggle to find enough protein unless people are willing to open their minds, and stomachs, to a much broader notion of food,” Queensland Meat Science Professor Dr. Louwrens Hoffman says. “Would you eat a commercial sausage made from maggots? What about other insect larvae and even whole insects like locusts? The biggest potential for sustainable protein production lies with insects and new plant sources.”

Whether or not you think maggots (or other insects) are a suitable substitution for your next hamburger, the Italians that make casu marzu are probably happy to not have to share their delicacy with the world just yet.

Now check out the history behind your favorite Italian foods. Then, learn about how scientists turned human waste into food.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City.