Photo: Di Palo Selects
It's easy to understand why Grana Padano is Italy's most popular (and most consumed) hard cheese. Whether eaten on its own or grated over pasta and salad, its deep golden color, fruity aroma, firm texture loaded with deliciously crunchy amino acid crystals (concentration of calcium lactate) and sweet caramel-like taste make it irresistible.
Grana Padano's rich history is reflected in its complex array of flavors. The cheese dates back over a thousand years, to the 10th century, when Cistercian monks reclaimed the region around the Po River Valley in Northern Italy (often referred to as the "bread basket of Italy"), and, decided to produce a cheese that would stand the test of time. To learn more about this cheese's current production, we spoke to Lou Di Palo, owner of Di Palo's, the legendary Italian specialty food store, located on Grand Street in New York City.
"Apart from using modernized equipment, cheesemakers create Grana Padano roughly the same way it was first made hundreds of years ago," says Di Palo. Like the French A.O.C. label, Italy has D.O.P - Denominazione di Origine Protetta - which ensures the authenticity and quality of regional food products. Thanks to its D.O.P. label, P.D.O. in English (Protected Designation of Origin), Italy has preserved many of the cheesemaking traditions involved in producing Grana Padano. For instance, the cheese can only be produced north of the Po River, in the following five regions: Lombardy, Emilia Romagna (only the province of Piazenza), Veneto, Piedmont and Trentino (only the province of Trento). Hence, the name "Padano" meaning "of the Po River."
In addition, Grana Padano is only made from the skimmed milk of Italian Holstein-Friesian cows (known as "frisona" or "pezzata nera"). The milk stands overnight, for a period of about 12 hours, after which the cheesemakers remove the top layer of cream, creating skimmed milk (not to be confused with skim milk which has almost no fat, or less than half of a percent, to be specific). "The use of skimmed milk creates a sweet delicate flavor and a palatable taste that's lower in fat and higher in protein," says Di Palo. The cheese actually matures quicker as a result of the skimmed milk. In terms of production, this is the crucial difference between Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano, both "grana-style" cheeses – "grana," meaning "grain" in Italian, refers to the grainy texture of the cheese.
Another critical aspect of Grana Padano's production is its aging process, which can last 9 to 16 months, 16 to 20 months or 20 to 30 months (called Grana Padano Riserva). The wheels are aged for a minimum of nine months at which point they're inspected by the Grana Padano Consortium. Only if they pass the inspectors' test can the wheels be granted Grana Padano status and be branded with the characteristic diamond-shaped firebrand logo. By using a small hammer, the inspectors knock on the rind, listen to the reverberations and detect whether or not the wheel has any fissures or cracks (both unacceptable in order to be considered Grana Padano). They also examine the feeling and aroma of the cheese by penetrating the wheel with a needle and a probe (similar to the "sonde" used for wheels of Gruyère, Comté and Etivaz).
Once they're officially "Grana Padano P.D.O.," the "stagionatore" – the people responsible for maturing the cheese – will continue to age the wheels in a temperature-controlled environment, typically a large warehouse. The aging of Grana Padano correlates directly to the cheese's taste and texture. The younger wheels will have a sweeter flavor with a noticeable tang, making them the perfect topping for a light meal, from salad to omelets. The older ones, especially the Riserva, have a deeper straw-yellow color, many more protein crystals, a more complex nutty flavor, and a much longer finish. To best appreciate Grana Padano aged over 20 months, it's ideal to savor it on its own, instead of grated over a dish.
Grana Padano can be ordered online from Di Palo Selects, where it comes with a complimentary Grana Padano chunking knife and cookbook.