It must be one of those ‘only in Italy’ things.
Here in the U.S. when you take out a car loan the bank keeps the pink slip as collateral; get a mortgage, and it holds on to the deed to your house. Italy’s Credito Emiliano accepts cheese as collateral for loans and to cover interest payments, and locks it away in bank vaults until the loan is repaid.
Of course it’s not just any cheese. The bank only takes Parmigiano Reggiano.
Parmigiano Reggiano is king in a country where cheese is revered, and where the cheese making arts are refined with unique varieties that represent every region, city, town, nook, and cranny of the country. It’s one of Italy’s biggest exports, but the industry remains resolutely artisinal. The cheese is made with infinite care by hundreds of small producers who adhere to labor intensive, centuries-old techniques. It’s also a time-consuming process, and that’s where the bank comes in.
Authentic Parmigiano Reggiano is aged for two years. A lot of money is tied up in each wheel which contains 550 liters of milk, and this can create cash flow problems for small cheese makers who need to keep buying milk and paying their employees. Credito Emiliano takes the unaged cheese as collateral and provides financing to keep production going. Producers can get 80% of the value of their cheese, and if they default on the loan the bank can sell the cheese and still make a profit.
Credito Emiliano is one of Italy’s largest banks with hundreds of branches and thousands of employees. It’s pretty much like any other bank—except for the cheese vaults and some unusual job descriptions. Bank employees oversee the aging process, turning the 80-pound wheels a few times a week, and a former branch manager wields a little metal hammer and periodically taps each cheese listening for hollow sounds indicating that the wheel has cracks or voids or is a dud that’s gone soft.
Credito Emiliano treats cheese like other banks do gold.
For good reason: the bank holds about 400,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano each with a street value of nearly $1,000. High-tech electronic door locks, motion sensors, security cameras, and armed guards stand watch over the vaults, but that hasn’t deterred bank robbers who’ve targeted them three times over the years. The most recent theft took place in 2009 when the robbers dug a tunnel beneath one of the vaults and made off with 570 cheese wheels.
Like gold, with serial numbers that identify each metal bar, every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano carries an ID code that indicates the dairy source and production date, and when they reach the one year mark, the outer rinds of the partially-aged cheeses are indelibly branded with the EU classification, each with its own registration number. Of course every Italian knows the difference between Parmigiano Reggiano and ordinary Parmesan, and even on the black market the thieves had to prove the authenticity of the stolen cheese. Ultimately, the registration numbers were traced back to the bank and the robbers were apprehended.
Once the cheese was safely back in the vault, no one was more relieved than Mr. Bizarri, the former Credito Emilian branch manager who now brandishes a cheese hammer. He spoke for all of us when he said: “Thank heavens we caught the robbers before they grated it.”