Pipe and Slippers:Never bet the devil your cheese
Good evening and welcome to my rambunctious repository of valuable volumes…or as some ridiculous personages have dubbed it – my lovely library.
I am Perilous Wight and here in the bowels of the city of Lancaster, in the disused tunnels of an underground train system that never was, I have made it my mission to collect every book that our self-proclaimed ‘supreme ruler f the universe’ and his mincing minions have banned from the bookshelves of the new world.
But this is not a public convenience! If you have wandered in here on the ill-advice of a cheesy octopus and its tasteless Gentleman Friend, you had best turn yourself around and wander out again! You will find no dreary double entendres, no pathetic punning or ridiculous riddle-rendering down here; here there is only the dark and the damp, the flickering of candlelight and the ceaseless toil of a man who did not re-animate from the dead to be pestered by people wanting bedtime stories!
But wait…what’s that you have tucked away under your arm there? Amontilado? A whole cask you say? And vintage cheese selection? Oh….well, yes perhaps it is about time I put my feet up for a while, pipe and slippers and a little drop of something, the day has, after all been a long one. And I suppose I could read a very little something,
like this perhaps…
Never Bet The Devil Your Cheese
I was sick – sick unto death with the stench of that dreadful chamber; the foul odour of my captors’ fetid breath and the rank, stale fume of their wrinkled skins. I swooned and felt at once as if my senses were leaving me, the sound of their voices seeming to be curdled together into one indistinct whisper – as the whisper of cream within the revolutions of a churning vat. And as their dreadful voices churned together to determine my fate, my mind was involuntarily drawn to ponder those unhappy events that had thrown me into the power of this unholy Society…
For the last two decades my life has happily revolved around the preservation of all that it is natural, healthy and wholesome for people to consume within the city of Cagliari and its surrounding provinces. In the course of this work I have had the pleasure to dine at some of the most exquisite restaurants and luxurious hotels that our beautiful island has to offer and, although there is always the occasional exception – the unscrubbed floor, the out of date salmon, the chef whose certificates have obviously been forged – on the whole I have found the consistency of cleanliness and order to be exemplary in all establishments under my jurisdiction.
The Monday that has most recently passed was the third of the month. I remember it distinctly. Upon entering the office as usual, I noticed a file upon my desk and, curious to see what it could contain, I immediately flicked it open.
I instantly recoiled, as though stung by some venomous insect, I struggled to breath in the oppressive heat which suddenly seemed to fill the room and yet a cold sweat burst freely from my pores and stood in fat glass gems upon my forehead.
I had heard the rumours. I had thought them fables – myths spun by our elders to scare the young novice or to pass time on the long journeys between one inspection site and another. But as, with trembling hand, I turned the pages of that file, the vile truth of the matter began to dawn upon me; That hidden deep within the mountainous regions of our fair Sardinia there exists to this day a group of souls so depraved, so foul, that their deepest desire is to feast upon what is known as, Casu Marzu – The Devil’s Cheese. This, I assure you, is no ordinary curd. The Camembert you may have tried and thought a little daring, the Blue-vein perhaps you may have been persuaded to attempt in your wild and impetuous youth but I assure you that nothing, nothing but the very rotting of a man’s mind and moral fibre could induce a human being into suffering a mouthful of Casu Marzu.
This unnatural cheese is nothing but the rotted corpse of a once noble Pecorino which has been purposefully infested by the larvae of the cheese fly, Piophila casei. The digestive juices of these lavae break down the fats within the curd until the poor cheese actually weeps lagrima as it liquifies beneath the rind. Once the Pecorino has rotted to the point that most sane human beings cannot bare to be within a few feet of the ammonia scented atrocity it is considered by the devotees of this strange cheese-cult to be ready for consumption; maggots and all. The ammonia is so strong that it burns the skin around and within the mouth and throat, the risk of food poisoning, and even death, has been estimated as equal to that of consuming the rotting corpse of a sewer rat.
Naturally, the consumption of such rancid fruits was deemed, by both the church and the crown, to be hazardous to a man’s body and to his soul and so the making, handling, buying, selling and ingesting of this demonic cheese were outlawed many centuries ago – the punishment being then, and remaining to this day, death. Yet there have always been rumours that in one particular village, a remote sheep farming settlement known as Bercei, devotion to this unholy curd was so strong that it bordered upon idolatry and a secret order of cheesemongers was convened there that they might continue to ferment and consume their beloved Casu Marzu.
Time and again these rumours had been investigated as every decade or so fresh evidence would appear to raise suspicion that the myth may actually be true, but, time and again, no genuine proof could be found and the investigator would take early retirement or put in for transfer to another region and so the story would lapse back into legend once more.
And now it seemed it was my turn to try my luck at the Bercei Mystery, well I tried, they cannot say I did not try; I bet the very devil himself that I would not rest until I had uncovered this foul mystery and exposed these wicked fiends in their disgraceful maggot munching. I poked my nose into every pantry and cellar, I left no churn unturned, I searched and I questioned and in general made such a spectacle of myself that I did not fail to catch the attention of the devil cheesemongers themselves.
And now I had fallen so completely into their power.
As I lay there, watching the gleaming of the candle flames upon the neat rows of variously shaped cheese knives, the girolles, the graters, the wires all aligned like instruments of torture awaiting my tender rind, a sudden deathly silence came over the occupants of the chamber and in that instant I was seized by many hands, lifted and carried out of the room and then down and down many winding passage ways where all about me there came the hiss of pent up steam, the grinding of the motorised cheese presses and the constant rumble of the churning vats until a dreadful dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the infiniteness of the descent and the vague horrors which might await me at my journey’s end.
At some point during this hellish passage into the bowls of the city – perhaps the very earth itself! – I must have slipped again into unconsciousness because my next sensation was of flatness, stillness and intense cold.
I did not dare open my eyes, at first, but instead I tried to imagine what there could be.
I felt that I lay upon my back, upon something cold and moist, and then into my weary mind their pressed such horrible visions, conjured up from the memory of the hideous rumours I had heard of these demonic cheese mongers and the thick debate of my captours as to what should be my fate.
I dreaded my first glance at objects around me, I dreaded the impending sensations which I imagined I could feel the beginnings of in every nerve and hair.
And then, as moments passed in silence and stillness, I grew suddenly aghast at the thought that there should be nothing to see or feel; that my captors, in their utter madness, had decided to bury me alive!
In a fit of panic, I leapt to my feet and thrust my arms out wildly in all directions. I felt nothing, yet I feared to move any further in case I should encounter the cold, stone walls and ceiling of a tomb!
Yet at last the agony of suspense grew intolerable and I cautiously moved forwards, my arms outstretched and my eyes straining from their sockets.
One, two, three, four, five… and my hands struck a cold, smooth surface – slightly slimy but more solid than the floor on which I stood. This sudden contrast brought me momentarily into a clarity of mind and now an urgency gripped my every fibre; to better understand the nature of my surroundings. It was a futile and utterly hopeless curiosity and yet the mind in torment will clutch desperately at any thread of reason in endeavour to anchor itself back to normality.
Keeping one hand upon the wall, I crouched and cautiously laid a palm upon the floor of my prison. At first I encountered some soft spongy substance which I took for moss.
Then, to my horror, it moved.
I plainly felt beneath my palm a steady palpitation, a writhing pulse, which sent a shudder – as of electricity – through my entire being. I can barely describe to you the horrific fancies which now plagued my shattered mind, nor can I recall the length of time that I crouched there in the icy darkness, feeling the sweat pool in the creases of my skin, feeling my breath steam as it passed in ragged shudders over my trembling lips. Where and what was I? What tortuous end had these devils dreamed up that I, like all my interfering predecessors, might be silenced eternally and that they should be left free to go on with their infernal cheese munching?
It may have been one or many hours that I remained paralysed in a state of utter terror and during all that while my attention was fixed wholly upon the floor. After a while my sanity must have fled the premises for my mind took up a grim fascination with the various pulses, tremors and reverberations that were taking place beneath my finger tips, until at long length there came a point at which my obsession with these movements – their cause, origin and intent – overrode my dread of the unknown and I determined to make an awkward circuit of my cell with one hand still against the wall and the other groping carefully about the floor.
I used one shoe as a marking point and by this method I soon deduced that I was in something like a circular pit, the walls of which were uniformly smooth and slick with moisture. As to the floor, the same gently pulsating moss was only present in patches – becoming denser with decreasing proximity to the wall – the remainder being of a smooth, cold, almost rubbery material.
But it was the pulsing that disturbed me more than anything for I could not imagine its origin or purpose, despite the zealous efforts of my mind to produce fancy after horrific fancy as to what tortuous death my captors had devised. This fact; that what lay in store for me was some fate worse than a mortal mind could fathom, filled me with such a terror that I collapsed and lay for many hours, perhaps even days, fitfully passing betwixt the realms of unconscious void and waking nightmare.
At length however, and since I remained alive and no change in my circumstance had occurred, I became aware of a sensation more primal than fear; hunger. A devastating, gnawing need which brought first dizziness, then nausea, and finally a passionate drive to consume anything I could lay a hand to.
Almost at the same instant that this hunger set in I perceived a gentle greying of the darkness around me. A light like dawn softly breaking in from some high shaft and then – oh mercy! – I was at last able to understand the nature of my grim predicament.
I was in the cheese.
As the light increased, so did my understanding and my horror of that place. The rubbery floor I had circumnavigated was an enormous round of the dreaded Casu Marzu. The suspected fungus that I had felt pulsing beneath my trembling fingertips was, in reality, the thousands of cheese fly eggs, gently squirming and, even as I watched, beginning to hatch. What would happen when those maggots sensed a new sallow flesh upon the menu? I shuddered, remembering the missing members of my unit – was this how those poor souls had met their grizzly end? Slowly digested, cell by throbbing cell, in the fermenting chambers of the demon cheesemongers of Bercei?
I have said already that I was starving to the point of near delirium and yet at no point did the thought of devouring even the tiniest crumb of that repulsive curd ever enter my mind. Instead I sought to press my entire body up against the wall and as far away as I could get from those wretched larvae, which had now began to nose about the silky surface of the cheese and spread their ammonia stench throughout the pit.
Thus I stayed. Marking the passing of time only by the fading and dawning of that distant greyish light, at first, until the larvae began to pupate and then…the flies.
They didn’t so much fly as hop and flit from one surface to another, drifting lace-like and silent on the pungent air, filling my eyes and nostrils like smoke until, at length, I lost both the energy and the will to waft them away.
The flies came, the flies went. They laid their eggs in the cheese and the eggs hatched and the maggots squirmed and formed oozing puddles of stinking putrid puss upon the floor. The maggots became flies and the flies came and the flies went. Up and up, called away by the fresher air and the light at the top of the pit.
I became grotesquely fascinated by this cycle and, when my legs could no longer take my weight and I was forced to lay amongst their writhing, pulpy layers, I took an almost child-like delight in watching every aspect of their development at close range. In fact, as time passed and my senses began to rot along with the cheese, there rose inside my bosom an almost paternal affection for the little creatures whose brief and simple lives were playing out before me hour by hour and some of the very nearest to my face I even thought to give names to; Beatrice – after my beloved sister, Maud – my dear mother in law…
As I drifted in and out of the realms of nightmare and fantasy my position seemed less and less dire, the instruments of my demise less like ravenous predators than familiar friends comforting my cold aching flesh with the warm blanket of their bodies; a blanket that was rising now about my shoulders, creeping around my ears, falling gently like a shroud over my exposed cheek and
I had forgotten that parched and puckered hole in my delirium. My mind had ceased to dwell on gastric sensations but when one over adventurous wriggler slipped in his exploration of the valley of my cadaverous cheek-pit and in
Taste I remembered
Meat I remembered as I sucked him in
And suddenly my mind teetered back from the edge of the abyss; these were not my friends, pets, tormentors nor even yet my devourers! No, these squirming worms were my salvation!
With wild abandon I scooped handfuls of the urine-soaked larvae into my mouth and they burst amongst my molars, their warm pus like a fine sherry sliding down my gullet. I rose frantically onto my hands and knees, grasping great handfuls as they tried to flee before me and then, all in an ecstatic second, it happened.
The cheese was in me.
I cannot describe adequately here, with pen and ink, the transcending beauty of that first mouthful. The intense burn of ammonia heat, almost unbearable in itself yet coupled with the cool and silky cream of the part-digested cheese that heat transformed into a mouth watering candied sweetness, perfectly balanced, before it became cloying, by the acidic tang of the savoury maggot meat.
I gorged myself into a divine frenzy. I leapt and danced like a freshly baptised demon waking into this new fromagian Eden.
Then, as if in confirmation that my sins of unbelief in this god-of-all-cheeses had now been washed away, the feeble veil of muted light, which had watched over my long hours of penance in the pit, burst suddenly into a blinding ray of brilliant gold illumination!
Dozens of arms reached down to me, hauling me up and out and into the welcoming embrace of my new brothers, who wrung my hand and slapped my back and dressed me eagerly in the fresh white robes of that secret and most holy society – The Cheesemongers Of Bercei.
Good grief, who is it that keeps slipping these mutilated corpses of classic literature in amongst my treasured tomes? I do apologise for that atrocity and I assure you it is not representative of the rest of my magnificent collection. But, now, enough of this cheesy nonsense! The cask has been drunk dry and so has my patience so come on, out with you all, immediately! No I do not care a hoot about the man eating Liver Birds or your long and treacherous walk home, you should have thought of that before you decided to break the curfew. GOOD NIGHT!
all images courtesy of http://www.freeimages.com