We lived for a number of years in the Perigord Noir, a region of France renowned for its gastronomy. The residents pride themselves on eating pretty much everything that can be made vaguely edible, even if at times the results defy both good taste and common sense, at least from an outsider’s perspective.
From the time we first moved to France we had heard about older country people who would enjoy a special delicacy with their camembert, brie or similar soft rind cheeses. We heard how they would leave the cheese on the window ledge in the sun so that the flies were attracted to it and would lay eggs on it. With time the eggs would produce maggots and shortly after that the cheese was considered good to eat. The maggots were considered to be quite clean, as all they had eaten was cheese. The best way to enjoy this delicacy was to put it on your bread and dip the lot into your bowl of coffee, eating the whole dripping mess for breakfast. Of course some of the maggots would fall off into the coffee so they would then be scooped up with a spoon and eaten at the end of the meal as a special treat.
Although we lived in a very rural area of France, this story did appear to be anecdotal as for many years we never actually met anyone who enjoyed their cheese ‘ripened’ in this unique fashion. Everyone who told of it knew of an old friend of a family member who….
One evening we had been invited to dinner at the home of an older bachelor friend, Claude who was not regarded as a gifted housekeeper. He had restored the old property himself with extraordinary patience and skill, incorporating such features as a beautiful enormous carved sandstone scallop shell forming part of an exterior wall – the interior portion was an alcove type seat in the main room and on the other side it was a fountain in the courtyard. He had also installed a shiny new porcelain footprint type squatter toilet because he preferred them. The interior of the home was dark (which was probably a good thing in view of the rudimentary cleaning that had taken place before our arrival) but had a comfortable timelessness about it. As in so many French homes there was no living room. The main room was the room where you ate and socialized around the table for hours before, during and after a good meal, taken at a leisurely pace.
Claude raised and grew his own food and so we were looking forward to a good evening. It was a meal lacking pretension, beginning with a plate of his own foie gras de canard (not a paté as some think, but the actual livers, preserved) as an appetizer with white French bread. This was followed by roasted chickens from his flock accompanied by fried potatoes and a bowl of lettuce leaves as a concession to those with health concerns. He served this with a good local red wine. It was simple but delicious. We sat around the solid table made from Perigord walnut on traditional wooden upright high backed chairs with woven rush seats. The floors were the original flagstones worn smooth over centuries of use.
As in so many French meals, we finished with a cheese selection. When the board of cheeses arrived it was passed to me and I was absolutely delighted to see large plump white maggots crawling across the board from one of them. We had heard about this for so many years but I had given up hoping to see the real thing. It was just the sort of local delicacy I would have expected to find being served at the table of our host. Intrigued as I was by the thought of the experience – the flavour, the texture, the sensation – I lacked the necessary spirit of adventure and contented myself with more commonplace varieties without livestock in residence.
I was very impressed with Steven who reached across the table to help himself to a healthy serving, maggots dripping off his knife onto the table as he did so. As he was about to start eating however he glanced down at the plate and suddenly one of the other guests began to shriek and jumped up from the table. My husband had, at that instant realized what I thought he had known all along, which was that part of his meal was beginning to make its way across the table in the form of the maggots. He didn’t know what to do. He hesitated just long enough for our host to see the cause of the commotion at that same moment and to snatch up the squirming plateful. He ran quickly to the door, opened it and threw the cheese, maggots and all outside into the courtyard. He then rushed back to the table, seized the cheese board and deftly disposed of the maggoty remains in the same way.
When he came back to the table he was absolutely mortified at what had happened. He assured us that he had bought the cheese in the market only that very morning and it had appeared to be completely normal – that is to say without maggots. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to hear that.
As we left to go home that night and turned to say a final goodbye to Claude, we felt a strange softly crunching sensation under our feet on the flagstones. It was the maggots that had spread all over the courtyard as they moved off in search of new adventures.
I like to think that somewhere in country kitchens in rural France there are lone camemberts ripening on sunny windowsills, creamy nurseries for delectable maggots destined to be savoured with morning coffee.
*There are cheeses that incorporate maggots and mites in their manufacture as can be seen in the images above.