Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Gold and The Larva

Two very different cheeses have been in the news lately.

One is White Stilton Gold, made by Long Clawson, one of the largest dairies allowed to make Stilton.  (Stilton is a name-controlled cheese -- sort of like a trademark -- and by European Commission law, only six dairies are currently licensed to produce it.  Since the dairies undergo regular, independent auditing, that number could change.)

While most of us know Stilton as a snappy, minerally blue cheese, it does come in a white version, too.  The white version is fresh, has no blue veining in it, is rindless, comes in a vacuum-sealed package, and usually has various fruits blended into the paste.  If you've ever asked yourself, "Why can't cheese have dried mango in it?", White Stilton might just be for you.

Long Clawson wanted to do something special to celebrate their 100th anniversary, so they developed sort of a "golden anniversary" cheese.  They took White Stilton and infused it with 23-karat gold leaf and Cinnamon Schnapps.

On their Website, they refer to it as "very unique."

Grammatical error aside, this cheese sounds terrible.  

Gold is inert, thus it has no flavor.  So, no organoleptic issues there. 

But Cinnamon Schnapps certainly does have flavor, and not the kind that goes with even a lackluster cheese like White Stilton.

Then again, people who have £60 (about $93, at the time I'm writing this) to spend on 100 grams (just under a quarter-pound, or, slightly less than four ounces) of cheese aren't likely buying this cheese because it tastes good.

Again, proving the adage, "Money can't buy you good taste."

Or, better yet, "A fool and his money are soon parted."

People who buy this cheese will likely buy it because they can.  Because Thorstein Veblen was right.  Because some people just have way too much money, inversely proportional to their amount of common sense. I don't think anyone will buy this cheese because they think it will taste good.

To me, it's an affront to the entire cheese industry, this monstrosity of a "cheese."  Even the mightiest 80-pound wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, one of the most highly respected and loved cheeses in the world, has humble beginnings and doesn't pretend otherwise.  The Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium's marketing is adamant about reminding us of this cheese's ancient origins, and how it's still made by small, artisan dairies in the plains, hills and mountains of rural Italy. 

Nearly every cheese held in high esteem by the industry -- cheesemongers, cheesemakers, chefs, food writers, etc. -- is a traditional cheese reflecting pride in the slow, steady rhythm of dairy agriculture.  Soil, grass, caves, mold.



Shame on Long Clawson for sullying the cheese world with this "luxury item."  It's bad enough most cheesemakers and cheesemongers are paid so little they can hardly afford the wares they make and care for and sell.  Now, Long Clawson is simultaneously cheapening the category, and making it stupidly expensive.

The antidote to this is the other cheese that's been in the news lately: Casu Marzu, or, as it's coarsely referred to, "Maggot Cheese."

Casu Marzu is a traditional Sardinian sheep's milk cheese.  The custom is to leave a wheel of cheese outside, with a bit of the rind removed, to attract the cheese fly to it.  The female will lay her eggs in the cheese, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae wriggle through and eat the cheese.  The wriggling, and the larvae's digestion of the cheese, causes the cheese to ferment and soften. 

When the cheese is soft enough to be considered "ready", the larvae are still alive, and some people choose not to kill the larvae before eating the cheese.  This is potentially dangerous, as the larvae can survive the trip through the cheese-eater's digestive system and cause some pretty serious issues in the intestines.  For this reason, some people who eat Casu Marzu employ various methods to ensure the larvae are dead before they eat the cheese.  But not all of them do!

Because of the questionable sanitary nature of the making of this cheese, the European Union had declared Casu Marzu illegal, although finding a black market Casu Marzu in Sardinia was no big deal.  Then, the EU reversed itself because of the traditional nature of this cheese -- they didn't want to promote the loss of a long-revered, regional foodway. 

Those of us in the United States who were either disgusted by or curious about Casu Marzu, or both, long had no way of experiencing Casu Marzu, or running away from it, unless we traveled to Sardinia.  Because the EU so recently changed its stance on the cheese, and because there's no way the FDA would ever allow Casu Marzu to come into this country -- I mean, we can't even have Reblochon! -- Casu Marzu was little more than a gross-out story to tell our squeamish customers.


Anyone up for a trip to Queens with me?

It turns out one restaurant owner in Astoria managed to get a wheel.  They aren't selling it -- that's probably how they manage to act within the spirit of the law -- but they will offer a taste to anyone who comes in and asks.  You can read about it here

I probably won't make it to Astoria in time to get a taste of Casu Marzu -- the larvae only live a few weeks, after which point, the cheese is considered past its prime -- because I don't leave the house much these days, but I'm excited it's here.  Momentarily set aside your cultural bias, and think about this:

A cheese made using an ancient recipe, nearly unchanged since inception, that has been pretty much illegal for decades, is now within subway-commuting distance to 8 million people in the United States.  It's an opportunity for us to eat or look at something we never thought we'd be able to see.  And for those of brave enough to try it, we're participating in an ancient way of enjoying food.

And now, to address the cultural biases. 

Yes, this cheese has insect larvae in it.  We are one of the few cultures in the world that doesn't consider insects as a food source.  But, we eat lobster and shrimp and crayfish, which are basically gigantic bugs that live in the water... and are bottom feeders, to make it even more yucky.

Yes, when you eat this cheese, you are eating a non-plant life-form that is still alive.  And we don't do that.  Oh really?  If you eat or drink anything with yeast in it -- bread, beer -- you are a liar.  And if you enjoy clams or oysters on the half-shell, you are a liar who enjoys clams or oysters on the half-shell.  Yeast is a living thing.  Clams and oysters are not dead when you eat them on the half-shell, my dear.  If they were, you either wouldn't want them (if they were raw), or they'd be cooked.

Okay, we're still not accustomed to eating cheese with maggots in it, and I'm right there with you.  But, considering the lame excuses for food we eat here in the United States -- blue ketchup? -- who are we to judge?

Casu Marzu may not be our tradition, unless our parents or grandparents are Sardinian, but it's a tradition worth preserving and even just talking about, because it reminds us to pay attention to and honor different people's food histories, even if we'd rather they kept their maggot cheese off of our plates.

For me, Casu Marzu is a far more important and noble cheese than gold-flecked, factory-made White Stilton.


  1. You have done Jerry Levy proud, referring to Veblen in a cheese article.

  2. Haha, thanks, Cheski. I was thinking that when I wrote it. "Thank goodness for my Sociology background, and thank goodness for Jerry Levy."