ROME—For those who know that real parmesan cheese does not come in a can, next week is going to hurt. That's when tough 25 percent tariffs are scheduled to come into effect on hundreds of European imports, including made-in-Italy Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino, and Romano cheeses.
The tariffs, which extend to other goodies like French wine and Scottish whiskey (list), are the result of a ruling by the World Trade Organization handed down over what were deemed to be unfair subsidies the European Union gave to Airbus jet manufacturers. The hit list misses some of the E.U.’s biggest exports, including Italian wines and ceramic tiles, sparkling wine and champagne, and European chocolates. But most analysts believe those items are now a bargaining chip and could easily be included in a second round of tariffs if the E.U. doesn’t start playing nice. The preliminary list of potential target items contains thousands of products many Americans might not even realize are imports.
For those items that will suddenly be too expensive to justify stocking in your pantry, why not use the tariffs as an excuse to visit the places these fine European products are made, and stock up here? There are travel restrictions on how much wine and whiskey you can take back in a suitcase, but very few restrictions on items like vacuum-sealed pasteurized cheese that has been aged more than six months, as most of the cheeses on the tariff list are.
Food writer and tour operator Elizabeth Minchilli has been taking people on cheese tours as part of her Italian food excursions for years, encouraging them to consider just what goes into the price of Italy’s most famous cheese varieties. Since the news of the tariffs was announced, she has been educating her clients, many of whom are restaurateurs and chefs, about what goes into artisanal foods so they aren’t tempted to find a cheap substitute.
“These cheeses are already expensive to make,” she told The Daily Beast by phone as she was taking guests on a cheese tour in Puglia where Caciocavallo, another cheese on the list, is made. “But that it is more important than ever to appreciate the cost that goes into them.”
Unlike other items on the tariff list that are made in mass quantities in big factories, Italian cheese-makers are almost always family-run businesses that make their living on exports. “You are really helping support a local culture,” she says. “Cheese is not only about the cheese. It is about the culture around it and the hundreds of years it has been made in the same way in the same place. That is all part of the price of cheese.”
The tariffs will touch all Italian cheese exports except buffalo milk mozzarella, and it could be devastating to many small producers. That’s why there were protests by producers when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Rome last week. One journalist even broke through the line to hand Pompeo a wedge of real Parmigiano Reggiano, pleading with him not to tariff the delicacy. It didn’t work. The tariffs, including on the parmesan, were announced shortly after he left Italy.
By European law, producers of authentic parmesan cheese are only located in the Italian cities of Bologna, Mantua, Modena, or Parma. Cheese from anywhere else cannot legally be called Parmigiano Reggiano or even its English translation Parmesan, though many impost0r cheese-makers sell it under the name illegally. Producers in this area have long offered cheese tours to foodies and chefs. But now many producers who are worried about the future of their businesses are offering special deals to entice general travelers so they might come and learn more about the history of the cheese with the hope they will still buy it even when it is 25 percent more expensive.
“The hope is that if they understand how our cheese is produced, they will see the value of it and still buy it even if it costs more,” Martina Corradi, whose family has been making Parmigiano Reggiano cheese for centuries at the Casearia Corradi farm near Parma. Visitors can tag along to watch the production, but the day starts early. The tours begin at 8 a.m. when the factory workers arrive to take people through the process, from the brine room to the ageing room where they will wander through vast shelves of cheese rounds, some of which have been ageing for three years. At the end of the tour, visitors will get to taste the difference between aged and newer cheeses and stock up in the farm’s shop.
The consortium that certifies all Parmigiano Reggiano keeps a list of authorized producers with information about tours, tasting and storing the cheese for those who decide to stock up on their next trip to Italy.