Anna Ward doesn't simply love cheese. That much is evident by the fact that she willingly sampled something that is called, too accurately, "maggot cheese."
We'll get to the maggot cheese later.
Ward is also in love with cheese, with the whole idea of it. She is, without overstating things, passionate about cheese.
She writes about it on her blog, The World According to Cheese. She has taken classes on all sorts of cheese topics from Murray's, the famed Greenwich Village cheesemonger. She teaches classes on cheese history and science, on distinctions among cheeses and on pairings principles — you know, figuring out what food or drink goes with what cheese.
She figures that, in her fridge at home, she probably has eight different types of cheese. And, maybe, three non-cheese items. Why all the love?
"First of all," Ward says with a laugh, "it's delicious."
There's more to it than that. To Ward, the history of an area's cheese reveals the history of the culture, of the town, of the country. "If we listen," she writes on her blog, "cheese can tell us the story of us."
Plus, did she say that it's delicious?
"On a daily basis, I eat soooo much cheese," she tells MNN while on a bus trip from New York. "People are like, 'Do you eat cheese all the time?' And I'm, like, 'Yeah!'"
It may look like an ordinary cheese, but this formaggio di fossa was aged in a pit. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The exotic nature of cheese
Liz Thorpe loves cheese, too. And she's probably in love with it as well. She hasn't eaten, and doesn't plan to eat, the "maggot cheese" of Sardinia. "I had the opportunity to try it in Italy … but I have not tried it," says Thorpe, a former vice president at Murray's who now runs the consulting company The People's Cheese, "because it's covered in maggots."
But Thorpe knows cheese. Her latest book, a reference guide on more than 600 of the world's cheeses, in due out in the fall of 2016.
"I think cheese is kind of an exotic food to begin with," she says, considering so many rely on mold or bacteria to become cheese. The truly exotic cheeses, Thorpe says, are those that are limited to a certain culture or geographic location. And that don't rely on — you know — maggots.
Take formaggio di fossa di Sogliano, an Italian cheese that dates to the 14th century. It's produced only in the summer and strictly in a couple of regions around Rome, from sheep's milk, cow's milk or a mixture of both.
Cheesemakers there dig deep holes in the earth, prepare them with fire, line them with wheat straw and place the curdling bricks in the pits in August to age for 80-100 days.
"What's weird about this cheese," Thorpe says, "is that it's chunky and crumbly, but when you touch it and put it in your mouth, it feels kind of wet in your mouth. It's just a funny collision..."
Thorpe plans a chapter on weird cheeses — "misfits" she's calling them — for her upcoming book. Along with formaggio di fossa ("cheese of the pit") is one that you may be able to find in you local cheese shop. It's called Torta de la Serena, made only in the Extremadura region of southern Spain and in Portugal.
What makes Torta de la Serena special is that a thistle plant is used to coagulate the sheep's milk, which may or may not account for its pronounced sourness and a taste that reminds Thorpe of "well-cooked artichoke hearts." It's a gooey, gelatinous cheese, "the only cheese that I would say you can stab meat into that cheese," Thorpe said.
Casu marzu is left outside to age. If flies get to the cheese and lay eggs, the hatched maggots are consumed with the cheese by daring cheese connoisseurs. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
What's 'too' exotic?
Milbenkäse is a cheese from the eastern German village of Würchwitz, famous because it's produced with the help of mites that crawl along the surface of the cheese doing their mite thing. When it's time to eat, the mites go with the cheese.
And if you think that's weird...
Back in 2011, Ward talked a New York restaurateur into trying something called casu marzu. It is an sheep's milk cheese produced on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. Casu marzu is cut open and left outside to age. Flies, as flies do, swarm to the stuff and lay eggs. When the larvae hatch — as larvae do — the maggots start chowing down. (Sometimes, the locals intentionally introduce the larvae.)
Some try to separate maggot from cheese before eating. Some don't. Ward didn't.
"It's incredibly intense," she says. "It's kind of hard to get over the fact, mentally, that you're eating live bugs. I think I would enjoy it if it didn't have live bugs.”
Ward likens the taste to a very strong pecorino — a hard, sheep's milk cheese from Italy — and the aftertaste to nothing she's ever had before. Still, it's an experience she's glad she had. "I just happened to be in the right place with the right cheese spirit at the right time," Ward says.
Backing off the strangeness
For adventurous — but not quite that adventurous — cheese lovers, Thorpe suggests something with a washed rind. The rind is cleansed with salt water. That contributes to a rather hefty attack of bacteria. And that makes the cheese, shall we say, stink.
Still, try it. "The bark is far worse than the bite in these cheeses," Thorpe insists.
The International Dairy Foods Association reports that, on average, every man, woman and macaroni-and-cheese-loving kid in America ate more than 33.7 pounds of cheese in 2013. Cheese.com lists more than 1,750 different cheeses, from 74 different countries. There are countless variations.
So both Ward and Thorpe invite food lovers to try the possibilities. "Maybe not to my extreme," says Ward, who always orders her bagels with extra cream cheese.
The point is, there is plenty of cheese out there be sampled, even if you’re not into mites or maggots or cheese that smells like the inside of a sweaty sneaker.
You just have to be willing to fall in love.
Related on MNN: