Culinary Aftershocks in Northern Italy

I awoke to the sound of glasses rattling and the bed shaking when yet another earthquake rocked northern Italy. I was there on vacation and, as irony would have it, to report on the culinary aftershocks of the frequent  terremoti to hit the region in the last several weeks.

The first quake struck on May 20 with a magnitude of 6.0, about 22 miles north-northwest of Bologna, in the heart of Italy’s food-producing region. It was followed closely by another. And another. Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology registered over 1,000 tremors in the four weeks that followed the initial earthquake.

While we drove through the pastoral landscape of Emilia-Romagna and Modena, we saw tile roofs collapsed into homes along the autostrada. Its aging infrastructure made the region particularly vulnerable.

The international media have reported primarily on the physical damage to food and food-production facilities, estimated at 200 million euros, according to Coldiretti, The Federation of Italian Farmers.

Cheese producers in Parma lost about 16 million kilos of Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano while it underwent the two-year aging process. Balsamic vinegar producers suffered equally crippling losses when vats of PDO, Protected Designation of Origin, balsamic vinegar overturned, valued at upwards of 1,500 euros per liter. An additional 100,000-plus liters of PGI, Protected Geographical Indication, balsamic spilled.

However, the initial damage reports don’t tell the whole story.

“Each of these products take months and years to age and produce,” says Mark Middleton, an American working in neighboring Reggio Emilia.  “The damage done to the warehouses in this area will continue to be felt over the next number of years as the supply has been significantly affected.”

Furthermore, the animals that survived the quake–particularly cows and pigs–continue to feel the aftershocks, altering sleeping patterns, feeding habits, breeding rhythms, and most notably milk production among dairy cows. Coldiretti reported a 10 percent drop in milk production, which will further hamper recovery among cheese producers. The shifting land also irreparably damaged farmland used to grow grapes and other fruits and vegetables, further blunting the economic recovery of the region.

“Many of our friends have taken this as a kick to the stomach, as they have already been knocked to the ground with a failing economy and growing unemployment,” Middleton added.

Coldiretti responded to the disaster immediately after the quake, sending president Sergio Marini to the region to survey the damage. He invited all local food producers to a town-hall style meeting in Villafranca to discuss national and local proposals to address the crisis. The organization created an initiative to encourage the purchase of earthquake-damaged foods throughout northern Italy. Additionally, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry along with the President’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development have both pledged to provide practical support to those who have suffered damage.

Ultimately, given the time-intensive process the regional food products require, the long-term effects of these earthquakes will take many years to realize and even longer to subside.