In the early 18th century, Stilton was born. This is a spicy, buttery English blue cheese. The Bell Inn in the town of Stilton served the cheese to travelers who carried it on to London, the mecca of travel and trade. Due to poor refrigeration and their pungent aroma, Stilton and other blues often became home to little creatures. Flies would land on a roaming wheel and work into a crack leaving behind a legacy to grow inside the cheese. According to The World Cheese Book edited by Juliet Harbutt, The tradition of pouring Port into Stilton came about to kill the creatures that gathered at the bottom of Stilton bells. Thanks to modern technology, we can enjoy the beautiful pairing of Stilton with tawny Port and not have to worry about uninvited guests at the table.
Mimolette from France is a very different style of cheese with its own microscopic secret. Annatto (a tasteless dye from a plant seed) gets added to the paste to give it a bright orange hue. Mimolettes shape resembles a cannonball and was possibly used as such during battle. According to Mythbusters 2009 season, episode 15 on the Discovery Channel, this is completely possible. Entire cities of cheese mites live on the planet of Mimolette burrowing through its hard rind crust in search of dark deep crevices gorging as they dig. These thriving little nibblers prove useful to the flavor of Mimolettes paste. Their insatiable appetites promote airflow and in turn enhance flavor. You don not have to worry about crushing a mite family when you enjoy a chunk of Mimolette. The inedible rind layer of this cheese planet is the only place the mites exist. Mimolettes inhabitants are long departed before you bite into it.
Those are the easy ones; stories of parasitic bugs interacting with cheese and building to a harmonious finale that keeps the squirmy little things out of our mouths. That is not the case with Casu Marzu. Prized for its maggot infestation, this ancient Sardinian treat gets consumed while the larvae wiggle inside. You will not find this delicacy in the United States and it is not easy to find in Italy anymore. Once outlawed, Casu Marzu sold on the black market for a time. After recently being deemed a traditional food it became exempt from the food hygiene regulations that originally banned the recipe and is now found at the dinner table without the threat of fines. Even knowing Casu Marzu might be an aphrodisiac and hallucinogenic, this might be the one cheese I would pass on trying. Making and eating this cheese goes like this (thank you Wikipedia for the breakdown):
1. The outside rind of a wheel of Pecorino gets removed and given to children as a chewy, salty treat.
2. The Piophila casei (aka: cheese fly) leave eggs on the cheese paste.
3. The eggs hatch and the larvae begin to eat the cheese.
4. Acid from the digestive system breaks down the fat in the paste making the texture spreadable for smearing.
5. Sardinians enjoy the cheese on flatbread while holding a hand in front of their face (because the hatchlings can jump up to six inches).
6. A lot of chewing commences since these leaping lovelies can live in your stomach long enough to do damage.
Although not glamorous, it is a giant peach of a story entwined with history, chance and decomposition. Thank you to the relatives of Centipede, Earthworm, Grasshopper, Ladybug, Miss Spider, Glowworm and Silkworm for making our world of cheese an interesting place.
To learn more about the beautiful island of Sardinia, the people who make this cheese and see Gordon Ramsay try Casu Marzu, click here.
Kira Jefferson is the resident cheese guru at SideBerns in South Tampa.
Stilton Photo by Dean Hurst; other photos via Wikimedia Commons.