Grana padano and Parmigiano reggiano

 

Italy has a grand tradition of cheese making: a 2011 survey counted no less than 515 different types of cheese produced throughout the country, 43 of which are “DOP” (protected designation of origin) kinds that cannot be legally replicated outside of the nation’s borders. This makes Italy the most cheese-centric country in the world, leaving France in the second place with “just” 46 types.
Of course each different cheese has its conoisseurs, but in daily cooking formaggio (Italian for ‘cheese’) boils down to a handful of basic types. The king of them all, the one you grate on a just-served pasta dish and which is used in countless recipes, is however the Grana padano.

 

“Grana”, as it is commonly called, is a hard cheese made with partially skimmed milk and cured for 9 to 12 months before being tested for quality and fire-branded with an official trade mark. The first part of the name comes from the grainy texture, while the second indicates its geographical origin from the vast plain where the Po river flows, in northern Italy. This cheese is traditionally shaped into large (18” by 15”) wheels weighing 53 to 88 lbs. An unopened wheel lasts for a very long time, and in fact the flavor of Grana evolves according to how long it has been left ripening in special-made vaults where it is frequently turned over to ensure the uniformity of taste and texture throughout the wheel. Basic Grana padano, the less expensive and relatively soft type, has a “up to 16 months” ripening certification; selected wheels are 16 to 20 months, and Grana padano Riserva (the crumbliest, most flavored and expensive type) is over 20 months old. The slightly oily rind is chewy and edible, and it is often considered a special delicacy. Its nutrient quality is especially hearty, as 100 grams provide 384 calories and a full set of proteins and aminoacids. In fact it is considered an excellent source of easily digestible energy, and for this it is commonly included in the diet of Italian national and Olympics sport teams.

 

Grana is also one of the most ancient cheese recipes in the world, produced with very little differences in the same way since 1135, when it was introduced by the priests of the Chiaravalle abbey, south of Milano. To receive the official brand, the cheese in its current form must be produced with milk from local cows fed with at least 75% of locally produced food, half of which from fresh grass and hay. Grana however has a nobler brother called Parmigiano reggiano (meaning “from Parma and Reggio Emilia”, two cities). The differences are in how the cows are fed, as they can only eat local hay, and in that they are milked just once a day instead of twice. This results in a higher quality milk, slightly fatter and more caloric. While foodies will go crazy over the supposed differences in flavor, most Italians don’t really see any difference between grana and parmigiano beside the price.

 

What really tastes different and notably even better is the rarely produced Parmigiano from Reggiana Rossa cattle instead of the most common Holstein Friesian cow. This is a disappearing type of cattle because it produces less milk than other varieties, but the cheeses made with its milk are noticeably tastier. Another thing that really doesn’t taste like Grana or Parmigiano at all is “Parmesan”, the knockoff cheese sold in supermarkets worldwide. One taste of real Italian cheese – possibly garnished with a drop of real balsamic vinegar – will clear that up for you in an instant.