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Parmesan prices: Will they rise post-earthquakes?

Shelves with Parmigiano cheese in a San Giovanni

Shelves with Parmigiano cheese in a San Giovanni factoryin Parsiceto on May 21, 2012, following an earthquake the day before. Credit: Getty Images

Are the recent earthquakes in Italy going to affect the price of Parmesan cheese?

In the days after two earthquakes hit the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, news stories recounted the tragedy of at least 25 fatalities along with hundreds injured and thousands homeless. There also was a fair amount of coverage about damage to the area's Parmesan cheese: The quake shook many wheels off the shelves where they were aging.

Americans think of Parmesan cheese as a category of hard, nutty grating cheese, but, in fact, it is a product with a strict legal definition, produced solely by the hundreds of individually owned dairies that belong to an organization, the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, that sets standards and inspects finished cheeses.

The consortium's rules state, in very small part, that the cheese can only be produced in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua and Bologna; that it be made with cow's milk from animals whose feed mainly consists of forage from the area of origin; that the curdling of the milk take place inside copper vats; that aging last at least 12 months, and that the finished cheese have a minimum weight of 66 pounds.

In other words, Parmesan cheese does not come in a green canister.

Both the first magnitude 6.0 quake on May 20 and the second (5.8) on May 29 were centered near Modena, in the middle of Parmesan's zone of production. A consortium spokesman said the "wheels that fell represent 10 percent of annual production."

So far, however, Parmesan prices in the United States have remained stable. Steven Damiani, chief cheesemonger at Uncle Giuseppe's Marketplace (with five stores on Long Island), hasn't seen his wholesale price go up. He's selling Parmesan for $15.99 a pound, as he has for the past three years.

Sal Di Palo, whose family owns the venerable Di Palo's Fine Foods in Little Italy, hasn't seen the price increase, either. "You might see it go up in the next six months," he said. "Maybe in the fall they'll raise it a little."

Is it hard to make steamers at home?

Emphatically: no. One night last week, I was strolling around Whole Foods, looking for inspiration, when I noticed a few pounds of soft-shell clams (steamers) in the seafood case. I bought all 21/2 pounds and, when I got home, I poked around the Internet and some cookbooks and found a lot of recipes calling for minced shallots, crushed garlic, chopped parsley, white wine -- not to mention prolonged soaking in salt water and vigorous scrubbing.

Here's what I did instead. I put the clams in a big bowl of cold water and swished them around. I lifted them out of the water so that any grit fell to the bottom of the bowl. I put the clams in a 12-inch skillet -- they fit in one layer -- and added about 1/4 cup of water. I laid a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil on top of the skillet, and the lid on top of that (for a tight seal), turned the heat to medium-high and let the clams cook for about 7 minutes, until they opened and firmed up ever so slightly.

I couldn't be bothered to melt butter, so I dipped my clams in some good olive oil. That was a very fine dinner.

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