Italy has a great tradition in cheese production: a 2011 survey counted no less than 515 different types of cheese produced throughout the country, 43 of which are “PDO” (protected designation of origin), meaning they cannot be legally replicated outside the borders of the nation. This makes Italy the most cheese-centric country in the world, leaving France in second place with “only” 46 types.
Of course every different cheese has its connoisseurs, but for every day cooking, cheese is reduced to a handful of types. The king of them all, the one which is grated on our plate of pasta, and which is used in countless recipes, is still the Grana Padano. The “grana”, as it is commonly called, is a hard cheese, produced with semi-skimmed milk, and aged 9 to 12 months before being tested for quality and branded with an official trademark. The first part of the name derives from the granular consistency, while the second one indicates its geographic origin, that is the vast plain where the river Po flows, in northern Italy. This cheese is traditionally molded into large wheels weighing from 25 to 40 kg. An unopened wheel lasts for a very long period of time, and in fact the flavor of Grana changes depending on how much time it has been left to mature in special cellars where it is frequently turned to ensure uniformity of taste and consistency of the wheel. The basic Grana Padano, the least expensive and relatively soft type, has a certified aging “up to 16 months”; the selected wheels range from 16 to 20 months, while the Grana Padano Riserva (the most tasty and expensive type) is more than 20 months old. The slightly oily crust is chewy and edible, and is often considered a special delicacy. Its nutritious quality is particularly abundant, given that 100 grams provide 384 calories and a complete set of proteins and amino acids. 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 Olympic sports teams.
Grana is also one of the oldest cheese recipes in the world, produced with very small differences in the same way starting from 1135, when it was introduced by the priests of the Chiaravalle Abbey, south of Milan. 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 consists of fresh grass and hay. However, Grana has a more noble brother called Parmigiano Reggiano (which means “from Parma and Reggio Emilia”, two cities). The difference in the type of feeding reserved for cows, as these can eat only local hay, and are milked only once a day instead of twice. This translates into a milk of superior quality, slightly fatter and caloric. While gourmets are crazy about the alleged differences in flavor, most Italians do not see any difference between parmesan and grana, apart from the price.
A truly different and particular flavor, often even better, is the rare Parmigiano produced by Reggiana Rossa instead of the more common Friesian cow. This is a less used type of cattle because it produces less milk than other varieties, but cheeses made with its milk are noticeably tastier.
There are numerous aspects that have allowed both these cheeses to obtain the PDO:
The production area
For the Grana Padano, the reference area consists of 32 provinces in five Regions: Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia Romagna, Trentino Alto Adige.
For Parmigiano Reggiano pdo, on the other hand, the production area is that of Emilia Romagna, and on the right side of the Po and the province of Mantua, in Lombardy.
For the Grana Padano PDO, fresh fodder is provided, as well as silage fodder, mainly based on corn. This type of feeding involves the use of chicken egg white, in a percentage of 2.5 grams per 100 liters of milk, to prevent abnormal fermentations during the maturing process of the cheese.
This also applies to Parmigiano Reggiano.
Expertize and Aging
The Grana Padano PDO is subjected to expertization, to then be fire branded with the PDO mark, after the ninth month of maturing. The 20-month maturity is scheduled for the GP Reserve.
Parmigiano Reggiano, on the other hand, is subjected to expertization at the end of the twelfth month of maturing. The longest aging, in this case, is 30 months.
One thing that really has nothing to do with Grana or Parmigiano is “Parmesan”, the industrial cheese sold in supermarkets all over the world. A taste of real Italian cheese – perhaps garnished with a drop of real balsamic vinegar – will make this clear in an instant.