Most Italians eat Parmesan cheese sprinkled on spaghetti, but in Reggio Emilia they hoard it like gold. The dairy farmers of Reggio regard the hard, salty parmigiana they produce as so valuable that they entrust it to banks for the two years it takes to mature.
A fully-seasoned parmesan cheese, weighing up to 88 pounds, is worth $400. Cheese-making is a multimillion-dollar industry that employs 60,000 people.
Hundreds of dairies concentrated around the northern Italian towns of Reggio, Modena, and Parma -- from which the cheese gets its name -- grouped together in the 1930s to form a powerful consortium which laid down tough quality standards.
The consortium won a fierce legal battle to prevent dairy farmers in nearby Lombardy from passing their cheese off as Parmesan.
Although output is more than 2 million cheeses a year, production methods in the Parmesan industry have changed little over the past century. The unpasteurized milk used to make the cheese comes from cows fed on a diet of fresh fodder.
``The secret of making good Parmesan lies in good milk, a good cheesemaker, and good microbes,'' says agronomist Romano Guidetti, who believes the fermentation process works best in unsterilized but clean dairies.
The key figure in the cheesemaking process is the master cheesemaker, or casaro, who in the eyes of the local community combines the talents of a modern manager with those of a medieval alchemist.
``The casaro is a bit like the manager of a football team,'' says Mr. Guidetti. ``If the end result is poor, he always gets the blame.''