Editor's note: When we met Anna (at Murray's Cheese, how fitting) and heard her brave story, we had to let her share it with you. You can read more of Anna's cheese writing on her blog worldaccordingtocheese.com. So, take it away, Anna!
About a year ago I saw a tweet announcing that the famed Casu Marzu, the cheese banned by the EU until recently, was residing no further than a short train ride from my apartment at a restaurant in Queens. Being a cheese writer, I knew that Casu Marzu was the traditional Sardinian specialty full of live maggots. Being a cheese enthusiast, I saw this as a chance for rare, cheesy adventure.
When I dialed Ornella Trattoria, the owner Giuseppe Viterale launched into a stern lecture explaining that the Casu Marzu was not for sale, that it would never be for sale, and that the only way to get to the cheese was through Giuseppe himself.
"I will give you the cheese if I like you!" he shouted, adding another layer of challenge to the already Fear Factor-esque experience.
I trekked to Astoria accompanied by two ill-fated friends, both of whom offered their support but swore they wouldn't taste the cheese.
We arrived at what appeared to be a cozy, family style restaurant, suggesting not even a hint of the bug-filled horror that would soon ensue. Giuseppe, in contrast to his demeanor on the phone, graciously welcomed us and invited us to enjoy his homemade pasta and exquisite wine.
Throughout our meal Giuseppe visited our table to share the story of Casu Marzu. He explained that the sheep's milk cheese has been made by Sardinian locals for thousands of years in the style of a pecorino. After it's made, it's placed outdoors with a hole cut in the top, through which "cheese flies" enter to lay eggs. The eggs become larvae that devour the cheese, decomposing the fats through digestion and excreting the remains. This fact he emphasized, noting that not only were we eating live maggots, but that the cheese between the bugs was filled with their "poop" (his technical term).
Finally Giuseppe went to the basement and emerged with the Casu Marzu draped in a white cloth. When he unveiled it, I held my breath and peered inside the wheel, expecting teeming maggot mounds but seeing only brainy cheese lumps. The smell was pungent but appealing. "This isn't so bad!" I exclaimed, almost disappointed by the seemingly normal cheese.
To ease our fears, Giuseppe took the first bite and washed it down with a swig of red wine. He then slathered a generous lump on three pieces of toast and placed one in front of each of us. My partners cringed, knowing that they would now have to taste the Casu Marzu to avoid deeply offending our host.
Undaunted, I raised my slice, only to see that it was actually writhing with squirmy little worms. Even as they jumped off my plate, I knew I couldn't back down.
I bit. I chewed. I cringed. My friends grappled with what they had just choked down. It was strong, challenging, but actually very enjoyable. It hinted of gorgonzola and black pepper but left a thick film in my mouth, preventing me from forgetting the little buggies currently digesting inside my stomach.
If Casu Marzu didn't contain live maggots, I might enjoy it. But then again, it's the maggots that give this cheese its greatness.