Thursday, November 08, 2007

Formaggio con i Vermi

I love to learn and am generally anxious to find out more about nearly any topic. Two subjects that fascinate me more than others are early Christian history and the beliefs and culture of people different from me. There is something captivating about coming to understand others and why they do the things they do. For this very reason I like a show called Taboo that plays on the National Geographic channel. Every episode highlights some aspect of culture or behavior that is considered strange by others (usually Westerners). The last episode I watched was about cuisine. As the narrator was educating us on the use of insects, he briefly mentioned that Italians on the island of Sardinia had been using certain insects to soften cheese for the past several hundred years.

As soon as that was said I flicked Eric's arm to make sure he was paying attention. Having spent 6 months of my mission on that island, I knew something of that cheese. The narrator never named it, but it is called formaggio con i vermi--worm cheese. To learn how it is made, click here.

Worm is a misnomer as the worms are actually tiny maggots. I learned this when I came face to face with the cheese on my mission. I was with Sorella Rogai and Sorella Price in Cagliari waiting for my new companion to come to the island. I also had a mishap with their toilet that week, but that's a story for another time. The three of us thought it would be a great joke to make meat and worm cheese sandwiches for the elders and tell them afterward about the cheese. Sorella Rogai was from Florence, but had family in Cagliari. Thanks to these family members we were able to find a store that would sell the cheese to us. The shopkeeper was very happy and offered us a sample before we purchased the cheese. After hearing so many people rave about it, I was very interested to have a taste.

The shopkeeper eagerly cut us slices of Italian bread and slathered some of the worm cheese on it. Until that moment I had never seen cheese...quiver. My companions and I dubiously looked at each other. Sorella Rogai took a big bite and I followed suit. What followed was an assault on the senses that I'll not soon forget. My nose tasted the abominable spread almost as soon as my tongue did. There was not sufficient time to recover from the shock before the taste invaded my sinuses. I was not previously aware that taste was possible in the sinuses. I choked it down and steeled myself for the next bite. As I opened my mouth one of the hundreds of gyrating maggots stopped and looked at me, obviously aware of its impending fate. I couldn't do it. For all the reasons you can possibly imagine.

We got out of there as quickly as possible and decided it wasn't a good joke for the elders. Sorella Rogai had to empty her stomach, while Sorella Price had deftly pocketed the stuff before anyone noticed she hadn't eaten. Now, five years later, I still can't understand the motivation for that particular bit of Italian cuisine.


Abbie said...

One word: DISGUSTING! :)

Italian Design Ltd said...

The cheese is called casu marzu and it is indeed a delicacy albeit illegal to make and sell. It should be preferably tasted with cured meet and red wine, but most importantly it should be tasted without maggots.
Maggots in fact do not add any extra flavour and can be dangerous as they can resist well to the stomach acids.
Maggots are there because they brake down some of the cheese fats turning a pecorino cheese into something “different” with a strong taste.
Eating live maggots is either done to show off or, most likely, to scare/impress/take the piss out of tourists (especially foreign)…