The next time you pass by a wheel of Parmesan cheese look at it with a little respect for while you may think of it as something to sprinkle over your pasta, for some Italians it is as precious as gold and even, used as collateral in exchange for small loans.

If you think that is impossible, just take a peek inside the vaults of Italy's Credito Emiliano, the country's leading bank, in the cash for cheese program. Located throughout Central and Northern Italy, most branches of the financial institution operate just like normal conventional banks. However, a select few specialize in dealing with food as collateral - Parmesan cheese wheels to be exact.

This of course has to do with the primary business of the customers they service. As you may know, Italy is the world's largest producer of cheese. One of their biggest exports is Parmesan cheese, which takes two years to age - This means that the cheese producers often face cash flow problems, because until the cheese is ready to sell they cannot afford to buy the ingredients to make more.

Credito Emilano allows them to bring in their precious cheese wheels as collateral. The cheesemakers can get up to 80% of the value of the cheese in advance, at a nominal 3% interest rate. Then, while they go about their business, the cheese wheels slowly mature in specially built vaults that are set at optimal temperature and humidity. Experts hired by the bank come in periodically, to turn the cheese wheels, check to ensure that they are maturing well and even, weed out the duds.

Not surprisingly, the unique bank has proved to be a win-win for all - The cheesemakers get to grow their business whilst the bank has collateral that is worth its weight in gold. Don't believe that? Then how do you explain the fact that the vault has been broken into three times - And in the last attempt, the thieves even managed to drag off 570 wheels of cheese. However, unlike currency and gold, the giant wheels are a little difficult to hide and the Parmesan robbers did not get very far.

While the bank which has been in business since 1953, currently focuses only on cheese, they are also considering taking in prosciutto and olive oil in the future These will of course be a little harder to store! Bank officials say that while the food for cash banks only account for about 1% of their annual revenues they are a life saver for the cheesemakers and of course for the rest of us - For what would life be, without a sprinkling of parmesan?