Saturday, November 12, 2011

I think I'll go eat worms... literally

A dear friend cautiously inspecting a wheel of casu marzu ("rotten cheese" or "worm cheese")

Ornella Trattoria (29-17 23rd Ave, Astoria, NY)

You obviously cannot order this on the menu (it can't even be stored anywhere near the other food), but if you're lucky enough (depending on how you look at it) Giuseppe--chef and co-owner of Ornella Trattoria--just might show you this Sardinian delicacy.  It's called casu marzu, translated "rotten cheese" -- so named because this large wheel of pecorino has undergone an advanced stage of fermentation... even decomposition.  How?  It's literally teeming with thousands of maggots.  Just check out this video I captured...

Before being declared a traditional food (the recipe goes back thousands of years), it was formally banned in the EU.  However, because it has been made for over 25 years, it is exempt from modern regulations.

These little buggers can jump up over six inches!

This traditional Sardinian sheep milk cheese is known for containing live insect larvae.

Derived from pecorino, the larvae of the Piophila casei (cheese fly) produce an advanced level of fermentation... Technically the maggots eat the cheese, break down the fats, and then defecate it.

Hakuna Matata!

When the cheese fly is introduced, a piece of the rind is removed so the cheese fly can lay its eggs. After several weeks, the fats are broken down, rendering the cheese soft and creamy.

The female larvae can lay 500 eggs at one time, so the fully broken down casu marzu has thousands of maggots inside...

In the above video, this is just what the underside of the cheese looks like. The larvae can jump up to six inches, so diners traditionally hold their hands over the cheese while eating.

And yes, I tried it.  While I am not an extreme food lover, how often does something like this appear at the table following a meal of baked ziti?  Slathered on a slice of rustic toast, the cheese was soft, smelled very strong (like an intense gorgonzola) and had an extremely complex layering of flavors.  The initial taste was pecorino, followed by gorgonzola, and then a spicy aftertaste, like freshly cracked black pepper.  Had it not been literally moving, I might have enjoyed a lot more... it was admittedly delicious.  But mind-over-matter only gets me so far...

Again, you cannot order this on the menu, but while the wheel lasts for the next few weeks (once the larvae eat everything, they die, and the cheese is no longer good), you might be able to sneak a peak.

Less brave palates will undoubtedly enjoy the more traditional fall comfort dishes being introduced to the menu, like the baked ziti, which is studded with spicy pieces of Italian sausage...

For fans of the signature dish, imubustata (pasta envelope), a delicious addition is the torcino, a rolled pasta sheet loaded with steak and bacon, covered in tomato sauce and baked with fresh mozzarella.

With the steal pizzaiola, tender filets of beef are blanketed with a tangy red sauce of sauteed mushrooms, and red bell peppers.

And for those brave enough to ask about the casu marzu who might not make it to Astoria before the cheese disappears, don't worry.  Giuseppe has been testing this year's sanguinaccio recipe, which should debut within the next few weeks.


Matt said...

Amazing! I've been wanting to try this cheese for ages, and now I don't even have to travel to Sardinia! Nice work, Amuse! :)

Adam Kuban said...

You are a braver man than I, sir. I was always under the impression that at some point, the maggots were removed from the cheese. I didn't know they were still on it as you ate it. Wow. (Obviously, I've never seen the No Reservations episode where Bourdain eats this.)

amuse*bouche said...

Oh, had you seen me at the table, I am not sure "brave" would be the caption under a snapshot of my face. And yes, apparently when the maggots are gone, that's how you know the cheese is bad. So they are always a part of the bite. Yikes!

Fat Englishman said...

What a marvellous tale! A cheese of near mythical reputation brought to life by dint of your fortitude!

Now I have to set about going there and tasting it for myself! There is something about the idea of trying things that either don't make sense or that are instinctively off-putting that I find irresistible!

Thank you so much for this


Apron Appeal said...

Oh man, Never could I ever! Fun to learn about though.

Hi I'm Gwen, last night after dinner with a few of your HS. buddies I learned about this blog so I thought I'd stop by to see what it was all about. Yum. YUM! Now if you have any restaurant recommendations for Indy....I would be forever grateful.

amuse*bouche said...

Gwen, thanks for the message! I actually love, love, love Indy... I crave the scotch eggs at the Broad Ripple Brew Pub. I just had a killer dinner at Osteria Pronto in the new JW Marriott downtown (pulled pork stuffed cannelloni was to die for!), and then a fun little New Orleans joint called Papa Roux--yummy food, and a lot of character.

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