REGGIO EMILIA — Much like Champagne or Bordeaux wine in France, Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is a protected DOC (controlled designation of origin) product. This means it can only be called “Parmigiano Reggiano” if it has been produced in a certain area of Italy’s northern Emilia-Romagna region.
There are more than three million wheels of bonafide Parmigiano Reggiano churned out each year, to be eaten by the chunk or grated onto servings of pasta in Italy and around the world.
It also happens to be the cheese with the most imitations in the world.
The biggest cheese warehouse in the world was going to be built in the Italian town of Correggio — as big as a soccer field, with 11 floors where 500,000 cheeses could be left to age to perfection.
This warehouse was to be constructed for Hungarian dairy company Magyar Sajt Kft, which, not coincidentally, produces a pre-grated, parmesan-like cheese that is very much not real Parmigiano Reggiano.
Hmm? Do we smell a rat?
Let’s go back to last April. That’s when Giuseppe Alai took over as director general of the Parmigiano Consortium, whose job it is to protect the good name and standing of authentic Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Alai had previously held a top position at a company called Itaca Società Cooperativa, which happens to hold a 100% controlling stake in the Hungarian dairy company Magyar Sajt Kft.
So the president of an association that protects Parmigiano Reggiano also did business with a Hungarian company that sells a copycat version of the cheese.
Close up (Zerohund)
Alai defended himself by saying he had left Itaca, and didn’t go straight to the Parmigiano association. “We did not know about this,” he said. “We didn’t directly deal with them. It was just a financial transaction.”
The Parmigiano Consortium had already been asked in the past to do a better job protecting the time-honored production of the authentic cheese. In 2009, the environmental group Greenpeace moved to prevent Monsanto’s genetically modified soya from ending up in Emilia Romagna’s cow feed.
Photo: Michela Simoncini via Flickr
In 2008, Luxembourg’s Court of Justice blocked the sale of parmesan — the copycat pre-grated cheese sold in Germany — asking that the authentic Italian product be better protected.
These cases weigh on the 3,500 manufacturers of Parmigiano, among them Simone Simonazzi. “There is too little transparency in the Consortium. Stories like this hurt us producers.”