Saving a town with cheese

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Nearly two decades ago, two earthquakes hit the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and its impact was devastating.  As the ground split open near Bologna the region was turned upside down with lives lost, homes levelled and historical buildings destroyed.

But there was one more thing under serious threat: cheese. And not any cheese, the king of Italian cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano. A cheese rated so highly that banks allow the producers to use it as surety guarantees for bank loans, during the period of maturing.

Thousands of Parmigiano-Reggiano wheels, the lifeblood of their world-renowned cheese industry, came crashing down from the high shelves in humidity-controlled warehouses where it matured for more than a year.

Disaster struck, but Italy struck back. They knew if they didn’t act quickly, the cheese (accounting for nearly R2 billion, a third of the annual production) would be beyond saving.

With the power of the internet, they attempted to get the whole of Italy to have dinner ‘together’, by sharing the same meal – whether that was in a restaurant or cooked at home – and the cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, took centre stage.

Chef Massimo Bottura, Italy’s hottest chef and owner of the three-Michelin-star Osteria Francescana restaurant based in Modena, created a recipe in honour of the country’s varied cuisine. He combined three themes: Parmigiano-Reggiano, Northern Italy’s rice eating culture, and the flavours of a classic pasta dish (usually associated with Rome), called cacio e pepe, or “cheese and pepper.” And instead of pasta, rice was used, and instead of Pecorino, Parmigiano-Reggiano was used.

The recipe reached far and wide. As restaurants all over Italy, and the world, joined in on Parmigiano Reggiano Night (which happened in October), every single wheel of cheese was sold. No jobs were lost. No cheesemaker had to close their doors. And every year on the 27th of October, Parmigiano Reggiano Day is celebrated in honour of the treasured cheese that has been exclusively produced in the Emilia-Romagna region for more than nine centuries.

There is unifying element in food, in sharing a meal, and this story of pride, passion and parmesan is one of the world’s greatest examples of the good kind of cheesy.

My dish, Three Ages of Parmesan, a tribute to Massimo Bottura’s dish that saved a small town’s economy.

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