The New Year certainly kicked off in style, lots of merriment, high jinks and laughs.  Gubbio our local town home to the World’s Largest Christmas Tree towering above the town with its multitudinous coloured lights  crowned by a large flashing star set the picture for a town in celebratory mode.   We had a great time, a perfect intimate Italian Scottish dinner with lovely guys.  At midnight whilst the FranciaCorta corks popped we launched lanterns high into the inky black starry sky as fireworks exploded in a multitude of colours and designs all around the valley.  Italy is magical, the modern sits in harmony so very well with the traditional.

The other evening, the house being closed it was time to catch up with friends and neighbours some of whom came over to dinner.  Winter time might bring out the hunters and their bedraggled by-enlarge ill-treated dogs ever chasing the poor wildlife, a horrid pastime that I find abhorrent, but this cruel ‘sport’ does I suppose have one benefit; a good supply of wild boar meat.  Using a recipe given me by an Albanian friend I marinaded the meat in white wine and milk for two days and then made a rich tomato sauce, combined with pappardelle, it was rather good.  Freshly made ricotta hit the table, the very first of the season.  Handmade by a couple of my guests, light, delicate, melt in the mouth, utterly sublime, a cheese made with passion.  How lucky we all were to be able to taste it.  Ricotta is such a versatile cheese, invaluable for so many recipes, but eaten fresh, still slightly warm, it is simply orgasmic.

This new year has brought me into contact with something I never thought I would encounter let alone eat.  Many years ago an Italian guy came to London, he brought with him honest regional Italian cooking opening a delightful restaurant in the capital and of course (as one now does) then went on to write cookery books and host food travelogues.  Unlike so many of today’s cookery celebrities he had a understanding gentleness, a real thirst for regional traditions that had brought him a consummate passion for proper food.   In a tv programme travelling the length and breadth of Italy, at one point in Sardinia he was given the opportunity or rather ‘made’ to eat a local cheese known as  “Caza Marzu”.  Now for the unenlightened this cheese is, like the other night’s ricotta, made with sheep’s milk, but there the similarity ends, it is totally different.  It is a matured cheese and literally crawling with live maggots.  It is illegal to produce, one of the reasons being that the maggots must be alive, if dead some believe they can cause digestive problems in humans.  But this is Italy and the putrid cheese being a real Sardinian tradition can sometimes be ‘found’.  I remember Antonio Carluccio, for that is who he was, sitting in on a sun-drenched terrace somewhere in Sardinia describing how the cheese is matured, and then being given a spoonful to taste.  His facial expression could not be described in a thousand words…

There are just some memories that for some reason stick in your mind, and Antonio Carluccio sitting on a Sardinian hillside is just one of mine.  At the time of the programme it took me back to another memory this time University days, the course on international cuisine.  Tutored by a jovial, passionate and vaguely eccentric beer swilling Yorkshireman, we were taken on an imaginary and sometimes shocking tour of the world’s cuisines.  One of his lectures analysing just why foods are acceptable to certain races and not others he, off in Uganda, began to describe how in time of locust swarm the insects are caught in flight and eaten.  There these locusts in flight are considered a real delicacy.  To put a live locust in my mouth, no! I like my fellow students thought, never, not me, how extreme, I could not eat such a thing.  The thought of the live locust slowly wiggling its way down into my stomach was not at all appealing.  Weird thing is I love Oysters, I only eat them raw, I love how they slip down my throat, and now I am aware plants have intelligence and obviously are living organs, I guess I also eat them alive, is that cruel?  Strange how our various cultures have developed and what we each regard as acceptable and unacceptable.

The “Caza Marzu” was brought out of the kitchen and put on the table.  Sure enough the cheese was crawling with little white cheese fly maggots, they were in the cheese, on the cheese and making a run for it over the plate.  The very opening of the cheese giving them the chance to escape.  In went the spoon, the cheese is semi-soft.  One of my hosts put a blob on his plate, then on mine and then his husbands.

The smell is pungent, strong, reminiscent of the rugby changing room, dirty feet, sweaty hirsute bodies that have together had an energetic workout, musty, masculine, overpowering, at the same time repulsive and highly alluring.  Caza Marzu tastes just as it smells, the after-taste lingers a long while, and I kind of liked it, in fact I had second and third helpings…