“That’s what he say,” the interpreter told me. “They jump.”
The owner of Casa Lawrence, a kind man with an easy laugh and warm eyes that sparkle when he smiles, which is always, held out his left palm. He extended and curled the fingers on his right hand, making them look like worms jumping off his hand.
“Ping! Ping!” he said, laughing.
“These worms in his cheese are delicacy,” explained the interpreter. “Very expensive. You are very lucky he offering you some.”
My friend and I looked at each other.
“When in Rome,” she said.
We, however, were not in Rome. Not quite. We were just outside, an hour south and a world away. We were in the mountaintop villages of Ciociaria, a region of Italy rarely visited by tourists, marked with its own dialect, culture and exquisite dishes, wines, liquors and, yes, cheeses, some of which date back to Etruscan times. The region is gorgeous and wild, the people friendly and gracious. The food is incredible — when it is not being offered with worms jumping out of it.
“You no like worms,” the translator said. “Don’t worry. The owner tells me not really worms. They are baby insect. How do you say... maggots!”
My friend and I laughed. Oh, yes, much better. Our eyes locked, first with questioning (Are we really going to do this?) and then with determination (Yes, we will).
We picked up spoons to show we would try the sheep cheese, known as casu marzu.
A friend’s wedding had brought me to Rome. Silver Compass Tours had brought me to Casa Lawrence. Visiting Casa Lawrence is, in itself, a writer’s dream experience. It was the Italian home of the great D.H. Lawrence. He lived here with his lover while writing his novels. His bedroom has been kept as a museum with original writings. The rest of the farmhouse, turned into an exquisite restaurant, serves homemade pastas, meats, cheeses, breads and wines that are all made from the gardens, orchards and livestock on the farm. My friend and I ate the best food of our lives in that farmhouse. We decided this must have been the owner’s tactic to wear us down — the deliciousness making us vulnerable to possibly saying “yes” to this terrifying post-dinner cheese.
The owner was beside himself with glee. I thought I might have been falling in love with him. Santa isn’t this jolly of a person. He lifted the lid off a gooey substance. Immediately, maggots came flying out as if they were jumping to save their own lives — which, in fact, they may have been. It was like an explosion of fireworks. My friend and I screamed. The owner and interpreter laughed.
Silver Compass Tours promised me an experience I would not forget. It set me up with a personal guide, an interpreter and a set of places to visit in order to woo me into joining the company. For years, it has given cultured food and wine tours of this region. The company wanted me to join it to host a writers retreat in a thousand-year-old monastery this coming May. The views, the gelato, the people and this unspoiled, wild land had already sealed the deal for me. But I’m guessing the tour company knew Casa Lawrence would be the icing on the cake — or maggot in the cheese, as it were.
“But they can only do the retreat over Mother’s Day,” I said to my friend, unsure about the timing. She also has children and was the only one of my friends who had come for the Rome wedding to accompany me on my extended first-class journey. “Do you know what the boys made me for Mother’s Day last year? Pancakes,” she said.
“That’s sweet,” I said.
“Yeah, it was sweet, until I saw the flour was full of bugs. You’re offering a Mother’s Day when moms can decide for themselvesif they want to eat maggots.”
We laughed, clinked spoons and dug in. Tiny insect larvae jumped off our spoons, onto the table and into our eyelashes as we swallowed the delicacy. Ping! Ping!
We did not ask for seconds. The smiling owner offered us delicious walnut liquor to wash down the larvae.
While my friend and I were texting last night, she said, “You know that’s still my favorite story. Sometimes you gotta do something crazy for yourself. Life’s about eating the worms before they’re eating you.”
Katiedid Langrock is author of the book “Stop Farting in the Pyramids.”