Casu Marzu and Nordic Food

Its name, after all, does mean "rotten cheese" in Sardinian dialect. It is not an easy cheese to get.
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You may be aware of the existence of casu marzu, a sheep milk cheese from the island of Sardinia, in the middle of the Mediterranean. Unlike other cheeses from Italy, casu marzu has the peculiarity of being inhabited by live, tiny maggots, which give it a very specific texture and flavor profile. Its name, after all, does mean "rotten cheese" in Sardinian dialect. It is not an easy cheese to get. As it goes against the European Union regulations about food safety, most producers do not want anything to do with it, for fear that their facilities may be shut down. Attempts are being made to produce it in ways that could reflect the new directives, but its legal status underlines the ongoing tensions between traditional specialties and modern ideas of hygiene and their juridical expressions. Few producers still make it, and you can only get it through direct and secretive connections.

Needless to say, casu marzu has numerous fans among food enthusiasts, partly for its shock value and the street cred that may come by eating unusual and hard to get fares. However, the cheese is also intriguing for those who are interested in food fermentation and those who are looking into insects as a possible source of protein. The latter are not fringe individuals any longer, as biologists, nutritionists, and environmentalists are looking into a category of edible matters that, although avoided in most of the Western world, are widely consumed elsewhere and could provide sustainable alternatives to meat and fish. It is not surprising that the Nordic Food Lab, the experimental kitchen launched by - and still connected to - René Redzepi of Noma fame, has been experimenting on insects, supported by academic research taking place at Copenhagen University.

That's how one day the Lab, looking to secure a piece of casu marzu for an event and to send a documentarist, Andreas Johnsen, to film its production, got in touch with Roberto Flore, a chef from Sardinia. Fast forward a few months, Roberto has become the head chef of the Nordic Food Lab. I recently spent an evening with Roberto, talking about the Lab's work, their approach to innovation, and their explorations about ingredients and culinary techniques. We tasted ants, whose formic acid content makes them taste a lot like orange zest, and bee larvae, which instead had clear hints of chestnuts. Previous chefs had also fermented grasshoppers to make a seasoning liquid, reminiscent of the Italian colatura di alici and the Vietnamese nuoc mam, both obtained from fermented fish. And it turns out that gin in which ants have been steeped tastes really good...

What is interesting in all this is the systematic exploration of ingredients to enrich the culinary experience from a flavor point of view, but also to find new ways to interact with the environment in sustainable ways. All the work from the Nordic Food Lab - a non-profit - is available online, as the organization embraces open sources as a way to disseminate its research. Attempts, experiments, successes and errors are equally important, argues Roberto, as somebody else may develop different reflections and experiences starting from the Lab's temporary setbacks. Although the chef does not necessarily interpret his work as food design, the Lab's approach to food research share many characteristics of what is usually considered as design, from the way projects are developed, participation among the Lab's members and outside experts are stimulated, prototyping and testing, as well as the desire to achieve tangible results that can have positive implications outside of the kitchen. The work on insects, for instance, includes reflections about the impact of taboos on human consumptions, technology, and food systems, which have the potential to shift perceptions and practices around food.

Who knows, Roberto and the other researchers and scientists at the Lab may find solutions to produce casu marzu legally and turn its maggots into a legitimate source of proteins, moving away from the status of a curiosity of the past...