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How Old is that Wedge You're Buying?
Pointers on how to tell if the wedge of Grana or Parmigiano
is really as old as the seller says it is,
and therefore worth the extra cost.
by Kyle Phillips
G rana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano share a common origin: the monks who reclaimed the marshlands of the Pianura Padana kept herds of cattle that grazed the fertile meadows and produced an abundance of milk; they used what they needed, and transformed the remainder into a hard cheese that aged very well for times of need.
Time was that it was all called Grana, after the cheese's fine grainy texture, though at some point the most of the people in the provinces of Emilia Romagna split off from the main body of Grana production, so to speak, calling their cheese Parmigiano Reggiano.
Grana Padano can be marketed at 9 months, though most producers hold it for 16 or more; whereas Parmigiano can be marketed at 12 months, though most producers have held it for 24 or more to date.
The production techniques are similar. Both cheeses are made by combining the evening and morning milkings in brass vats; in Grana Padano both batches of milk are skimmed, whereas in Parmigiano only one is.
This makes Grana Padano a little less fatty than Parmigiano Reggiano, which in turn means that Grana Padano matures at a slightly faster rate than Parmigiano.
In any case, once the milk batches are combined they're heated to 33°C (about 88°F), the rennet is added, and the curds are broken up to the size of a grain of rice. The curds are gathered into a mold that gives the cheese its classic squat barrel shape, warmed to drive out some of the water, marked with the cheesemaker's marks, salted, dried and aged, with repeated inspections along the way.
Forage also makes a difference. The cows whose milk produces Parmigiano Reggiano graze the local meadows or eat hay gathered in said meadows, whereas the cows whose milk yields Grana Padano graze different meadows with different mixtures of grasses, and can also be given corn stalks. Cheese from cows that are fed the corn stalks tends to be whiter and taste milkier, whereas the cheese from hay-fed animals is yellower and has hay overtones.
Both Grana and Parmigiano made in the summer, when the cattle graze fresh grass, tend to be richer than those derived from winter hay.
So which should you buy, Grana or Parmigiano? At present Parmigiano enjoys a better reputation, though, to be honest, I'm not sure how deserved it is. Many people consider Grana Padano to be more industrial, but there are industrial Parmigiano Reggiano producers too. If you instead seek out artisanal cheeses made up in the mountains with the milk of meadow-fed cattle, the differences are going to be more stylistic than qualitative.
New Developments in Parmigiano
And this brings us to the new development in Parmigiano Reggiano production; most Parmigiano producers now hold their cheeses for 24 months before releasing them (the production date for both Parmigiano and Grana is stamped on the rind below the cheeser's mark, which means that you will know how old the cheese is if your cheese merchant splits his forms into wedges by hand, or if you find a wedge with the date on it at your supermarket). Most, but not all -- the minimum aging is a year -- and to help consumers make their selection the Consorzio del Parmigiano-Reggiano has introduced a new grade of cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano Prima Stagionatura, which is to be applied to cheeses that are good enough to be Parmigiano but are not suitable for long aging.
To distinguish Parmigiano Reggiano Prima Stagionatura from Parmigiano Reggiano, which must now age 24 months or more, the rinds of the younger cheeses will be incised with closely spaced horizontal groves that give them a distinctly banded appearance.
On the face of it this is a victory for consumers, because it will keep unscrupulous merchants from passing off younger cheeses as glorious long-aged Parmigiano Reggiano. In actuality I think it's a defeat, because it gives the big industrial producers who had been keeping their inventory in their aging halls the opportunity to declassify quite a bit of it and slip it on out the door; many producers may find it economically more interesting to shift their emphasis to the younger, less interesting (from a gastronomic standpoint) prima stagionatura cheeses. In other words, rather than favor the production of the better long-aged Parmigiano, the new Prima Stagionatura class will allow Parmigiano producers to compete more effectively against certain categories of Grana Padana.
The other change in Parmigiano rind markings, and this I approve of, regards cheeses that fail the inspections: In the past these cheeses were inscribed with diagonal crosshatches that crosscut the words Parmigiano Reggiano on the rind. Now, all markings will be stripped from cheeses that fail inspection, and this will make them much easier to spot.
When 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.