The outpouring of concern that people have expressed for the 10 producers and agers of Parmigiano Reggiano® cheese most affected by Sunday’s earthquake has been really heartening. They have begun an all-out local effort to sell their cheese with dignity to their neighbors, who have been lining up at the cheese houses to help support their friends. “We are alive and we want to move forward,” said a milk producer from the Casumaro dairy. “Parmigiano Reggiano is the symbol of our traditional way of life and with great effort, even in the midst of disaster, we want to continue to make it.”
Parmigiano Reggiano is made by an entire agrarian system—grass growers, milk producers, cheese makers, cheese testers, cheese agers, cut and wrap facilities, cheese selectors and cheese sellers. Everyone depends on the work of the others. It is a cheese making culture and civilization that has grown up in the area around Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua, and Bologna.
The May 20th earthquake primarily affected producers and agers in and around Modena, Mantua, and Bologna. Here 300,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano fell from collapsing shelving in several aging rooms when the 6.0-magnitude quake hit.
Of the ten establishments damaged by the quake, nine are continuing to make cheese, and in acts of solidarity, the other 370 producers across the area have opened their aging facilities to take in the newly produced wheels from the nine affected cheese houses until their aging facilities can be restored.
In spite of the earthquake the cows haven’t stopped giving milk, and the one cheese making facility that had its cheese making room destroyed is continuing to make cheese at another local Parmigiano Reggiano cheese house with the milk from their production partners’ herds.
According to Leo Bertozzi, General Director of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, “The Consorzio is working hard to help the producers hardest hit by the quake. For them the devastation is overwhelming. However, it is important to remember that the earthquake did not wipe out the entire production of Parmigiano Reggiano as some very uninformed reports are stating.”
Perspective is important. Last year 380 producers made 3,231,915 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano. About half of the 300,000 wheels that fell with the shelving have not been damaged externally or internally, and these wheels can continue aging in the facilities of neighboring cheese houses. The remaining 150,000 wheels (less than 5% of the annual production) that have been damaged will undergo a triage by health care workers and professional testers.
Typically each wheel of cheese made in the controlled production zone undergoes professional testing at one year of aging. The wheels that meet the characteristics necessary by Italian and EU law to be called Parmigiano Reggiano, PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) are certified with a firebrand.
The warehouse shelving tipped over during the earthquake held wheels of both certified Parmigiano Reggiano (over 12 to 24 months of aging) and wheels that were uncertified (less than 12 months of aging).
Certified wheels are being re-tested, and those that have sustained no internal or external damage will be given additional aging in neighboring cheese houses. Uncertified wheels are also being pre-tested. If they are sound inside and out they, too, will be brought up to one year of aging and then tested again to see if they meet the standards to become certified Parmigiano Reggiano.
Uncertified wheels with a broken rind or cracked interior can’t age any further. After selecting, they will be sent to refrigerated warehouses to await use as an unbranded hard grating cheese ingredient in food products or be melted for dairy based spreads. Certified wheels with broken rinds or internal cracks will be sent to Consorzio-licensed pre-pack facilities within the production zone to be portioned or grated and sold as certified Parmigiano Reggiano.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to repair is the financial system that counts on the ability of cheese makers to take loans against wheels of cheese they have aging in warehouses. The bank is the warehouse of cheese wheels. In one instance Ivano Chezzi, Persident of the Cooperativa Albalat in Albareto near Modena, explains that they are still able to make cheese, but their warehouse has been damaged. It typically contains 90,000 wheels from their production and the production of several other cheese makers. “Miraculously, 15,000 wheels stayed on the shelves” Mr. Chezzi says, “but 75,000 wheels fell with the shelving.”
Chezzi believes that about half the wheels will be determined to be unharmed and capable of further aging. However, warehouses are like banks and according to Chezzi, “without the ability to sell the cheese we lose our cash flow and without the warehouses full we lose our financing because the contents of the warehouse is our bank.” His particular Parmesan bank is worth $53,000,000 US (40 million euros).
According to Consorzio President, Giuseppe Alai, the Consorzio is offering help and creating partnerships to “contain the problem of liquidity for the [affected] cheese dairies and to better control the flow of wheels that cannot be sold in the traditional consumer channels.”
While the quake has dealt a severe blow to many cheese makers and agers in the northeastern most part of the Parmigiano Reggiano production zone, the wheels that have fallen have a commercial value and much will be recuperated with time and hard work. Additionally, there is a strong agrarian network of support for the producers involved that will help them get the assistance they need to recover.
“It is the people of the area who have lost their homes and have seen the centers of their historic towns in ruin who really need the concern and financial support of our friends around the world,” says Leo Bertozzi, the Consorzio’s General Director. “The Consorzio is looking into appropriate charities to help our neighbors severely affected by the earthquake. When we find the appropriate legitimate channels we will inform our friends around the world, because this will be the best way to express love for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.”