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By Kyle Phillips
It's hard to believe that much of the Pianura Padana, Italy's great northern plain that provides most of the country's fruit, vegetables and meat, was once a desolate marshy wild. It was of course inhabited, but fell into decline with the collapse of the Roman Empire and really didn't become productive again until the monastic orders, many of which renounced the world and sought out the most inhospitable areas possible, began large scale land reclamation in the 1100s. As they drained and cleared the wetlands around their new homes fertile fields and pastures appeared, and soon other settlers came too. Towns and cities grew around the monasteries (this settlement pattern was quite typical in the Middle ages throughout Europe) and in a short period the whole area was transformed.
The pastures proved especially luxuriant around what is now Milano, and raising cattle became one of the major economic activities. In addition to providing meat, the cows provided milk -- lots of it in some seasons. To throw away the excess would have been both sinful and foolhardy, for there was no telling when crops might fail and famine loom, and therefore the people began to make cheese. Initially something soft, probably, but the middle ages were a lot more dynamic than we give them credit for, and people soon figured out how to make something that would last longer: Large cheese wheels that slowly aged, and in doing so passed from being delicately flavored, soft, and pale white, to delightfully sharp, firm but grainy, and gold. They called it Grana, because of its grainy texture, and the name stuck.
"But I thought Parmigiano Reggiano was the King of Cheeses?"you say. True, Boccaccio mentions it in the Decameron (in association with ravioli), and it did earn said title from an international cheese tasting held in England not too long ago, but in actuality Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padana are quite similar. Both are made from the same ingredients, milk and rennet, and both are made by heating the milk in a cauldron, curdling it with the rennet, gathering the curds into a ball, shaping the ball into a wheel, and subsequently aging the wheel for two or more years. The end result is a milk concentrate that colapses 8 quarts of milk into 1 pound of cheese; it's rich in protein and extremely rich in calcium, and has much less fat than one might expect. No wonder Italian physicians prescribe it for those who require extra protein or calcium in their diets, especially pregnant women.
"Well, what's the difference?" you ask. Primarily the forage; the meadows in the production area between Parma and Reggio have certain grasses, while those of the meadows of the section of Lombardy that produces Grana have others. As a result there are slight differences in flavor and color (Grana is paler). However, though advertisers may say one is "better"than the other, the difference between pieces of Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padana that have been made with equal care will be stylistic rather than qualitative. You may prefer one, and your friend the other. It is true that Grana has more of a reputation for being industrially produced, and that it may be easier to find hand-crafted Parmigiano, but it's also true that industry is making inroads in Parmigiano there are cheese makers who hand-craft Grana Padano. So for every-day use you should find either quite satisfactory; Fernanda Gosetti suggests one use Grana in recipes that call for the cheese as an ingredient (as opposed to having it grated at the table) because it is generally somewhat cheaper.
Buying Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano: think wedges. The wedge will have some rind, and on the rind you should be able to see the brand mark of the relevant Consorzio, be it Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padana. Try to select a wedge taken from the central part of the cheese rather than the top or bottom, because it will lack the top or bottom rind. In Italy, at least, one can also buy bags of chunks of Parmigiano or Grana (bits that break off as the wedges are being split), but they're harder to grate.
Do not buy pre-grated cheese: It rapidly looses its flavor and aroma, and unless you watch as it is being grated you have no way of knowing what really went into it. Stay away from the stuff sold in shaker cans.
WHAT TO DO WITH PARMIGIANO REGGIANO OR GRANA PADANO? Well, grate it, obviously, and use it to dust pasta, risotti, soups, or whatever else suits your fancy. However, it's much more versatile than that. In chunks, with bread and a bowl of good balsamic vinegar for dipping, it's a sinfully libidinous antipasto or party food. And here are some other suggestions: