Cheese-gate: On the Trail of Phony Formaggio

Several readers have wondered what prompted my trip to Europe. Work? Pleasure? A sudden desire to blog from thousands of miles away? Well, I can now reveal that I’ve actually been sent here by the C.I.A. to investigate the use of a certain yellow substance and how it's being transported from country to country.

Thankfully, it's a lot nicer a mission than the one Joe Wilson was sent on to Niger.

In my case, C.I.A. stands for Confederazione Italiana Agricoltori, which is the Italian farmers' association, and the substance in question is not uranium yellowcake but rather… well, parmesan cheese.

According to Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata, an Italian News Agency, nine out of ten Italian cheeses sold in America are fakes -- that is, not really made in Italy. This upset the Italians enough to force the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization to ban these cheese clones and stop allowing them onto the FAO's list of approved foods, which is known as the Codex Alimentarius (and no, this is not the name of a Roman Emperor). “It is no longer tolerable,” said Tommaso Mario Abrate, chairman of the agriculture federation Fedagri's dairy section, “that our market-growth potential is limited by products that only have one thing in common with ours: the name.”

This, as I’m finding out in my travels, is actually quite a hot topic in Europe (okay not as hot as Rove is in America but hot). It’s one of the local issues that are having an impact on the adoption of the European Union constitution.

One of the cheeses the Italians are most fixated on is their "Parmigiano Reggiano." And since cheese is pretty much my favorite food (I spent many years before I had children living on it), I decided to investigate Cheese-gate for myself.

My sources led me to a specific restaurant in Portofino (in the hotel Splendido) which not only serves a real Parmigiano Reggiano but offers on its menu an explanation of where exactly this local version of the king of cheeses is made: on a farm owned by one Gianluca Bonati, whose cheese artisanship is such that he will only use the milk from a select few of his cows, and only produces four of the Parmigiano Reggianos a day. I tell you, they take their cheese very seriously here. Check out the menu:


And trust me... this stuff is the real deal. A far cry from the "parmesan" we get at the grocery store or sprinkle on our salad bar Caesar.

But it’s not just Parmigiano Reggiano that is being counterfeited faster than the latest Kate Spade bag. If you're partial to Fontina, there's a good chance that it's coming from China, and if you're enjoying what you think is Asiago, instead of coming from Northern Italy, it's probably from Wisconsin.

According to the C.I.A. (Italian farmers division), the number of EU seizures of fake Italian foods has tripled in the last year.

So if there are any C.I.A. officials reading this post, I would like to announce that I am in the neighborhood and available to investigate this travesty, go to each cheese region, and let the world know how much better the real stuff is. I'll pay my own travel, but I'm going to need a treadmill to work off the side effects of this fat-fraught mission.

I await your reply with bated breath, my passport, and some nice wheat crackers.