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PRAGUE (Reuters) - When two earthquakes shook northern Italy in May, gourmets around the world were worried by television footage of damage to wheels of the adored parmesan cheese which came crashing down from their shelves and the dairies that produce them.
Losses are still being assessed and will not likely lead to market shortages. But should there ever be a need to search for alternative supplies, lovers of the hard, grainy cheese that is essential to pasta dishes should look to the Czech Republic.
That is where an Italian family firm going back seven generations and some 200 years runs what it says is the world's biggest single dairy production line making parmesan-type, or grana-style cheese using traditional handcrafted methods.
The Brazzale family scouted the former Warsaw pact region for years after the 1989 fall of Communism before it found what it needed in the Czech Republic - mainly enough pasture for cattle and solid expertise.
Starting from a tiny operation in 2000, the dairy at Litovel, in the traditional eastern farming region of Moravia, now employs more than half of Brazzale's 350 staff.
"What's important is that when we saw the area, we immediately said - this is the right region. There is a lot of land, the farms are big, well-managed," said Roberto Brazzale, the head of the family firm.
"The race of the cattle is very good for our cheese, I would say better than Italy," he told Reuters.
The Litovel plant takes in as much as half a million liters of milk per day, about eight percent of the Czech Republic's total production.
In Italy, Brazzale is the top maker of butter as well as among the biggest producers of Grana Padano, the parmesan cheese that comes from northern Italy's Po valley.
That is separate from the smaller region around Parma and Bologna where the similar but possibly more famous Parmigiano-Reggiano is made, from which the parmesan name is derived but cannot be used freely by products from elsewhere.
The Czech product is called Gran Moravia in reference to the 9th century Great Moravia state in the region. It is made using nearly identical methods to its Italian cousins, formed into 36 kg wheels and aged for 9-24 months.
It requires tight control of the milk supply, which includes choosing the proper foraging for cattle in order to define the milk flavor needed specifically for hard cheese, as well as carefully supervising the production and ageing of the cheese.
The Czech Republic, thanks to the collectivization of farming in the 1950s under communist rule of then Czechoslovakia, has large farms by European standards, making sourcing and oversight easier.
Brazzale said his firm now exports about 70 percent of its Czech output to Italy and the rest to 54 countries worldwide. Only four percent is sold in the Czech Republic.
The earthquakes in northern Italy on May 20 and May 28 caused damage of at least 150 million euros ($189 million) to makers of Parmigiano-Reggiano, hitting plants, product and maturing facilities, according to a consortium representing the cheese makers.
Further damage was reported from the Grana Padano producing region, and in total nearly a million wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano have been reported damaged.
($1 = 0.7947 euros)
Editing by Paul Casciato