Italians Snap Up Earthquake-Damaged Parmesan Cheese

Cheese maker Dante Caretti’s worst nightmare came true in the early morning of May 20, when he was awakened by a crashing noise during a 5.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.

Caretti, 70, was less concerned about damage to his home than to the thousands of wheels of aging parmesan cheese that he heard sliding off his warehouse’s shelves. Around 10 percent of parmesan production in the Emilia-Romagna region may have been damaged in the quake and a second trembler this week, the Parmigiano-Reggiano trade association estimates.

Parmesan cheese is a 1.2 billion euro ($1.5 billion) industry in Italy, where a 39-kilo (86-pound) wheel that’s aged for 24 months can retail for more than 700 euros. Genuine parmesan, which is sprinkled on pasta dishes, cooked into risotto or eaten as a snack, is so precious that some regional banks, including Credito Emiliano SpA, hold the pungent gold cheese as collateral for loans to producers.

As much as 60 percent of wheels in Caretti’s warehouse was damaged in the two quakes. To aid producers like Caretti, Coldiretti a farmers trade association, has started a “solidarity” campaign to help sell cheese damaged during the quakes. The bruised wheels will be chopped into smaller pieces and sold.

“While there’s no hope for younger cheeses aged up to one year, we have at least 5,000 wheels of more mature cheese that survived the quake and can be sold within a month,” he said.

More than 4,000 potential customers have called Coldiretti to order the Parmesan damaged during the quakes since the sale started on May 26. Dozens of sales points have been set up and cheese makers are working to organize home deliveries, Giuseppe Di Paolo, a Coldiretti spokesman for the Emilia-Romagna region, said by phone.

“It’s a total success, people have called from France, Germany, even the U.S.,” Di Paolo said. “We have already sold hundreds of Parmesan wheels,” he said, adding that prices are only at a slight discount to avoid undercutting sales of undamaged cheeses.

Losses in the agricultural industry from the two quakes, totals about 500 million euros, including damage to farm equipment, buildings and to the cheese, according to Coldiretti. About 30 cheese factories have been damaged in Emilia Romagna and about 600,000 parmesan wheels fell in warehouses during the quakes, a spokesman for the association of producers of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese said. Around half of that cheese, or about 10 percent of the region’s annual production, was damaged, he said.

Emilia-Romagna is also known for other distinctive foods like balsamic vinegar and Parma ham.

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