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food / travel

The Miracle After Italy's "Parmesan Earthquake"

This is the good kind of cheesy...

Shelves of Parmesan, Modena
Shelves of Parmesan, Modena
Andrea Malaguti

MODENA - Milk is turned into gourmand's gold, and left for 12 to 24 months to mature in countryside caves. The maturation of parmesan cheese is a perpetual process, it never stops. But on May 20, 2012, an earthquake split the ground open near Bologna.

“Our world changed," says Oriano Caretti, a local cheese producer in the eastern Italian region of Emilia Romagna. "But slowly, we’re putting the pieces back together.”

Caretti says it wasn't the earthquake that woke him that day: 20 seconds earlier, his 230 cows began mooing desperately. “The first thing I thought was that the barn was on fire -- even the dogs were going crazy," he recalled. "Then I felt a breeze coming from the ground, there was a deafening noise, as if there were 20 huge gravel trucks unloading in the courtyard. We ran outside.”

After the ground stopped shaking, Caretti checked on the dairy and the boilers: “Everything's working, in a few hours I can fill them with milk,” he'd told himself. Then he headed to the warehouse to check on his 11,000 wheels of cheese. It was quiet, the structure had held.

But though the quake-proofed walls had withstood the earthquake, the shelves holding the parmesan, that ran from the ceiling down to the ground, had collapsed, crushing both the softer fresh and already aged wheels. The damage would come in at an estimated six million euros.

The next day, TV crews from all over the world arrived - from Al Jazeera to CNN- to film the “parmesan earthquake.”

A near fatal blow

Once they left, it was up to Caretti to start over -- and, up until now, without any state aid. So how did this dairy disaster turn into a cheesy miracle?

It was clear that a collective effort within the local industry was needed to safeguard the authentic trademark of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which can only be produced in Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua, and is a cornerstone of the regional economy, with a turnover last year of 1.2 billion euros. In the aftermath of the quake, more than 600 farms and 37 dairies had been affected, 600,000 cheeses fell (of which 120,000 were destroyed or melted). Damages totaled some 100 million euros. It could have ruined an entire industry.

Caretti, 63, is a friendly and practical man, accustomed to work and not the type to shed tears. But to continue, he would need to take more than a few deep breaths -- and look for some help.

“To clean out the warehouse, I couldn't call on a company. Instead, there were volunteers -- a family in Cavezzo who had just lost their house, and a young engineer who was a friend of my son. These are the things that you will never forget. They put our problems in front of their own.”

And just as the producers were getting back on their feet, the demand for the cheese exploded. The new batches couldn't age fast enough. The Alpini wholesalers invested money in the producers. Meanwhile, the Parmigiano-Reggiano industry consortium collected 2.5 million euros in local and corporate donations.

When the earthquake happened, in the five warehouses of the Albolat cooperative, there were 91,000 wheels of cheese, of which just 18,000 stayed on the shelves. Ivano Chezzi, president of the co-op, estimated losses at 20 million euros. "Such an event was unthinkable. But the rescue machinery worked in an extraordinary way."

Now that the parmesan is back on its shelves, Caretti looks around his refurbished warehouse. "When I look at this, the first thing I think is: it could have been worse," he said. "Twenty-four hours before the earthquake, there were four children playing underneath these shelves of cheese. If they had been there during the quake, they wouldn’t have been able to escape."

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