How Italians have made Parmesan cheese known (and imitated) around the world


As soon as they get off the plane at the Bologna airport, the traveler finds a huge advertising banner explaining that they have just arrived at the cradle of Parmesan cheese.

In reality, Parmesan is only made in a part of the province of Bologna, west of the Po River, but the advertisement, in Italian and English, gives a good account of the importance of cheese for the economy of the area.

Parmesan is not only a successful cheese, it is a production model that has structured the social fabric of an entire region. 50,000 people between farmers, cheesemakers or consortium staff live directly from Parmesan cheese.

The cheese factories, which today are still mostly cooperatives, emerged as a tool for farmers to get more out of the milk that their cows gave - which in the beginning were no more than two or three per family. And they were a real success.

Cheese factories were fundamental in the economic development of a region, Emilia-Romagna, which, despite being mainly dedicated to the agri-food sector (agriculture has a GDP weight of 5.8%, to which must be added the entire industry of the elaboration, with giants like Barilla or Mutti), is one of the richest in Europe.

Two out of every three people in Emilia-Romagna work in a cooperative and their per capita income is 50% higher than the Italian national average. It is not surprising, considering that the liter of milk to make Parmesan is paid at 70 cents per liter. It is more than double what is paid for milk in Spain and a price impossible to reach if it were not for the limited pasture in the Parmesan region.

Currently, the production of Parmesan is close to the production cap: since 75% of what the cows eat has to come from the area there is a natural limit that cannot be exceeded. That is why milk and, therefore, cheese, is paid so dearly, and there is nothing to predict that its price will decrease.

The Parmesan cheese factories are visited by thousands of tourists all year round.

This is how a food product is protected

Parmesan cheese is a great commodity, but there are hundreds of equally good cheeses that don't even match the soles of shoes in popularity. The key lies in knowing how to sell its qualities as unique and protect the product tooth and nail.

The Italians were, along with the French, pioneers in the protection of their food products. It was in 1934 when the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium emerged: cheesemakers from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, west of the Reno River, and in Mantua, east of the Po River, joined forces to protect and promote a product that they began to imitate in the valleys of northern Italy.

The name "Parmesan" has already spread throughout the world to give names to all the cheeses of the style

How do you explain Direct to the Palate Andrea Robuschi, Press Officer of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium and host during our visit to Parma, the producers saw the need to differentiate their granulated cheese from that made in the Po Valley, where corn silage was used to feed the cows, which allowed to increase production, but at the cost of the quality of the cheese.

There was even a legal battle over the use of the name "Parmesan", which ended with the Stresa Convention, a treaty on the Use of Designations of Origin and Designations of Cheese signed in 1951 in which the "Grana" were recognized as different cheeses. Lodigiano ”, later to be known as“ Grana Padano ”and“ Parmigiano-Reggiano ”.

The name “parmesan”, however, had already spread throughout the world to give names to all similar cheeses, something that guarantees the success of a product, but which gives the Consortium many headaches.

Cheese masters control the quality of the wheels with the help of a hammer: if the sound is homogeneous, the cheese is in good condition.

In defense of the "real" Parmesan

In the European Union, the sale of cheese classified as "Parmesan" is prohibited if it is not from the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) Parmigiano Reggiano, but in the rest of the world it is impossible to control this. According to the Consortium, for every 15 Parmesan cheeses sold, only one is authentic Parmigiano Reggiano.

Consumers outside of Italy are little or not informed about the true nature of the product

Manufacturers from all countries make “Parmesan-style” cheese and package it with the drawing of a Colosseum and the Italian flag, a competition that, they explain, does a lot of damage to the product, but is very difficult to prosecute, since governments they prefer to defend the interests of their own producers.

Consumers are little or not informed about the true nature of the product. The Consortium conducted a study in which a group of consumers had to assess the provenance of a cheese sold as Parmesan, but that it was made in Wisconsin - something that was indicated on the label. 70% thought it was really Italian.

In the end, as in all commercial matters, it all depends on your negotiating skills. Italy has managed to ban Canada or Japan from advertising products that are not made in Italy as Italian, but this has been impossible to achieve in other countries, where locally made “Parmesan” cheeses are widely available.

In Italy appellations of origin are religion, and stores, like this one in Parma, always have them on a pedestal.

Manufacturing traditions

Appellations of origin are not only a way to protect traditional products, but also a powerful tool for marketing, because it brings together producers in defense of a common interest.

Italians are masters when it comes to selling their products around the world: vis-à-vis the gallery, they are radical in their defense of tradition, but they are not afraid to adapt it according to the circumstances.

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