The most notorious cheese heists of all time


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In London on Tuesday, 4 September, 1666, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that he buried his wine and his ‘Parmazan Cheese’ in his garden, to protect both from the Great Fire of London that was rapidly approaching his house. It was estimated that the cheese would have cost him several months’ salary, so it’s not surprising he wanted it saved from flames or looting.

Parmigiano Reggiano may not be quite as precious today as it was back in 17th-century England, but it’s still prone to being looted. That’s why there are an estimated 300,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano, worth around $200 million, being kept securely in Italian bank vaults. One Italian bank, Credem, accepts wheels of parmesan as collateral against the loans they make to farmers, needing cash while their precious cheeses mature. 

Like fine wines and rare whiskeys, parmesan wheels only increase in value as they age, making them desirable targets for thieves and gangs. According to Time magazine, cheese is the most stolen food on earth

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Parmigiano Reggiano theft

In 2015 an armed gang was arrested in Modena in in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, where the genuine parmesan comes from, and charged with the theft of €785,000 (about $875,000 at the time) of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. It wasn’t in one huge heist but amounted to 2,039 wheels of parmesan stolen over the course of a couple of years by the 11 gang members. They were as well-equipped as any other gang, but instead of targeting banks or shops they went after warehouses and factories holding wheels of parmesan using sophisticated electronics to circumvent alarm systems. In other raids they also stole 15,000 kilograms (16.5 US tons) of shellfish and frozen fish.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, or the cheeseberg, though. According to the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, the official body governing Italy’s parmesan makers, over $3 million in parmesan cheese is stolen in Italy every year. It’s not only warehouses that get robbed, either. Gangs also target small, artisanal parmesan-makers and farmers, knowing their security systems are easier to beat. As parmesan has to be aged for at least a year before it can be called parmesan, and some are aged 2-3 years, that means a lot of wheels are being stored all over northern Italy at any one time.

One wheel can be worth several hundred dollars, and some several thousand, and although each and every wheel carries an identification mark, it’s easy for the thieves to slice them up into wedges and make a tidy profit on the black market. And no doubt, being Italian, they kept a few back for their own pasta dinners and pizzas.

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Amsterdam cheese robbery

Cheese crime isn’t something confined to Italy, but happens wherever cheese is widely produced. In June 2022 in the Netherlands, armed thieves broke into a dairy farm near the town of Fijnaart, about 90 minutes south of Amsterdam, and made off with 3,550 pounds (1,610 kg) of cheese worth a cool $23,000. The theft was only discovered when the farmer went in to milk his cows in the morning and discovered the door to his cheese storage unit open and 161 wheels, each weighing 22 pounds (10 kg), were missing.

Police suspected that the cheese would make its way to Eastern Europe, and perhaps on to Russia, where there’s a thriving black market for authentic European cheeses from Italy, France, and the Netherlands. Sanctions against Russia after their invasion of Ukraine sent the cost of desirable cheeses rocketing. 

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Cheese slicer stolen

Also in the Netherlands, at the Amsterdam Cheese Museum, two thieves were filmed on security camera in 2015 stealing something called the Boska Holland Cheese Slicer. The fact that it was made of platinum, encrusted with 220 diamonds, and valued at $28,000 obviously appealed to the two men, who presumably had no intention of slicing cheese with it.

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Wisconsin cheese store shoplift attempt

A gang of thieves in Wisconsin weren’t so lucky when they stole 70,000 pounds (31,751 kg) of cheese from a cheese store in Germantown. The cheeses were recovered the next night 20 miles (32 km) away in Milwaukee when the thieves tried to sell them for a dollar a pound. It would have netted them a tidy profit had they succeeded but the buyers they approached became suspicious of cheeses being sold so cheaply, and called in the cops.

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Comté larceny

Also in 2016, over in the Comté-making town of Goux-les-Usiers in eastern France, thieves made off with 100 wheels of the valuable local specialty cheese from a dairy farm. The gang cut through some barbed wire before prizing the door to the cheese storage area open with a crowbar. If you want to buy a wheel of genuine Comté in the US today, it can cost around $1,000, so it was some robbery. In this case the wheels weren’t recovered and probably ended up in some unscrupulous stores and restaurants, where no questions were asked.

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Muenster cheese heist

Perhaps one of the most bare-faced of cheese thefts took place in Cashton, Wisconsin, in 2013. Veniamin Konstantinovich Balika forged some paperwork and drove away from the K&K Cheese company with a truck containing 21 tons of Muenster cheese which the makers valued at $200,000. Balika was arrested a thousand miles away on the New Jersey Turnpike, however, when police spotted the truck and pulled him over. Most canny thieves have two vehicles, one for the robbery and another unidentifiable one to switch to when they’re safely away from the scene. 

It’s known that cheese is one of the most stolen foodstuffs in the world, up there with steak and spirits. Stores have even started putting security tags on pricier cheeses to stop people slipping them into their pockets and then slipping out of the store, quiet as a mouse. As for Samuel Pepys, he never mentioned his ‘Parmazan Cheese’ in his diaries again. Who knows, maybe it’s still there?

This article originally appeared on CheeseProfessor and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

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