Cheese belongs to Italy like wine. There are so many kinds of cheese that I won’t be able to cover them all in this series. Still, I’ll introduce at least the most popular ones. Those that even foreigners encounter often, but actually don’t know much about. In this series I will not only introduce Grana Padano, Mozzarella, Stracchino, etc., I will also explain how to serve them, how to cook with them, and what health benefits you can expect.
You don’t like cheese? Let me tell you this story. I didn’t like cheese either. I didn’t eat Pizza; never put cheese on my Spaghetti, and let’s not forget I never ate cheese raw. But it was not possible for me to travel to the zone of Grana Padano and not to taste this awesome cheese. My boyfriend simply wouldn’t allow it. It’s like travelling to Scotland and not to taste their Whisky. You insult people like that! These products are the best they have to offer! They are famous all over the world for them!
And that’s how I had to taste Grana Padano and now I like it better and better every day. After that I also tried other cheeses, like Stracchino and Monzarella. I also started eating Pizza again and gradually I also start to put Cheese on my Pasta. I still don’t always put it, but sometimes it just improves or adds to the taste.
This is the first part of the cheese series. I cannot say how many parts there will be, but once in a while I’ll write a new post about a delicious cheese that I’ve discovered.
Let’s start with one of the most famous Italian cheeses the Grana Padano.
The Grana Padano is more than 1000 years old. The monastery of Chieravalle in Lombardy produced the first hard cheese. Back then, cow milk was very valuable, but it expired after only one or two days. So they were looking for a method to make the milk durable. The monks called the first cheese “Casseus Svetus”; Latin for grained cheese. The farmers who could not speak Latin anymore called it formage di grana.
Thanks to the growing popularity of the Grana Padano, the cheese production spread outside of monasteries. Professions such as the Cassaro emerged. Even today, people consider this profession very prestigious. Only 1951 the Grana Padano received its official name.
Protection of The Name
1954 the Grana Padano Consortium was founded. Its headquarters lie in Martino della Battaglia in the Province of Brescia near Garda Lake. This consortium is in charge of quality controls, prevention of illegal usage of the Grana Padano trademark, marketing, and market research. Only in 1996 the EU protected the name Grana Padano that only factories the zone north of the Po can produce it.
The consortium regulated production process in detail. They check everything from the cows to the selling points regularly. For the production only milk from the Grana Padano zone can be used and it cannot be older than two days. The cows have to be fed with Lucerne, which is one of the highest quality feeding stuff, and bran.
The Production Process
The production process starts off by skimming the milk. The output will be filled into a huge copper cauldron. There it will be heated to 20°C together with the rest whey of the day before. Sometimes lysozyme, an enzyme, is added. This is the base for Grana Padano.
Now the mix heats up to 30-33°C. Another enzyme is added called Rennet that is extracted from the stomachs of calves. The mix starts to thicken and is broken apart with a cheese harp. When the mix reaches 59-56°C the fire is turned off. The grains start to collate on the bottom of the cauldron, where they stay for one hour under the whey.
After one hour the mass is not hotter than at the beginning of the process. When the grains merge to cheese, it’s taken out and cut into two pieces. These are put into Teflon forms, where they stay for 24 hours. Afterwards they pass into steel forms. Like this they receive the traditional form of the Grana Padano.
Now the cheese rests for 2-3 days at 20°C and high humidity. Then the Grana Padano goes into a salt bath, where it remains for up to 30 days. During this time machines turn the cheese regularly. The salt bath sucks out the humidity, enhances the crust development, and ensures the correct saltiness.
How A Grana Padano Should Look Like
The cheese has to age for at least 9 months. But you can also buy 20 months or older cheese. I personally prefer the Grana Padano of 24 months. At this point it has the perfect taste and consistency.
After 9 months the cheese should be 18-25cm high and 35-45cm in diameter. It should weight 37kg and the crust should have 4-8mm. The control of these numbers still effects in the traditional way; through hammer, needle, and tube.
Only when the cheese passes all tests, it receives the diamond-shaped brand that classifies it as Grana Padano. This is not the only test that shows whether the Grana Padano is ready for sale. Also the packaging and the point of sales receive testing. As already mentioned, even the farmers have to adhere to strict quality standards. At any time they have to be able to show the quantity of cows they have, the quantity of milk they produce, how much they feed the cows, whether they adhere to all hygiene standards, and where and at how many degrees the milk is stored.
How To Cut A Grana Padano
As you can imagine, you cannot cut 37kg of hard cheese in a sec. Most likely you will never come into the situation to cut a whole Grana Padano. The selling quantities are much smaller, but if you ever come into the situation, you know what to do. I don’t care! I will still explain to you how you can get the Grana Padano into nice little pieces.
For the traditional way you need to have the right tools. A simple knife won’t suffice no matter how big. You never know how the Grana Padano will break, so you have to take control of the breaking process. You need three kinds of knifes to do this. They are not especially big, but they do the work better than a kitchen knife. You will need a hook-knife, a hard-cheese-knife in the form of a tear, and a spattle-knife.
We start off with the hook-knife. Take it and scratch into the crust, so that you see two half circles on the surface. Continue scratching on the sides of the cheese and on the underside. The line should go once around the body of the cheese.
Now take the hard-cheese-knife. Actually, you need four of them. Stick it into the point of the scratch line, where the surface meets the side. Do the same on the opposite side of the surface. Now take the spittle-knife and stick it into the middle of the scratch line. All three knives should draw a line along the scratching line.
The next step is to take them all out. Be careful to not move them to the side to accidentally break the cheese. When you've removed them all, turn the cheese to the other side and repeat the process. This time we don’t remove the knives, but stick two other hard-cheese-knifes next to the ones already in the cheese.
Press the knives carefully in opposite directions to force the cheese to break. You will see that it broke exactly at the scratch line into two pieces. As each of the pieces still weigh 18.5kg, you can repeat the process until you have nice little quarters of cheese. When cutting these for sale, you need to take care that crust is on every piece.
Nowadays, the dissection of the cheese works a bit different. However, it still effects manually. The factory close to where I live uses a taunt wire. It’s stretched around the cheese and pulled tighter and tighter until the cheese is cut into two pieces. The advantage is that the cut is clean and less pieces break off.
The Taste of Grana Padano
Throughout the aging process the Grana Padano undergoes a profound change. You can note this in the complex panorama of taste. Many people appreciate the Grana Padano because it contributes to the flavor rather than cover it with its own. It can be served as table cheese, or used as granulate over pasta or risotto. In addition, it's suitable for soups, as it melts very fast. It fits to wine, ham, soup, or cheese fondue. So, it’s an all-round cheese.
How To Serve The Differently Aged Grana Padano
More than 16 Months of Age
This Grana Padano has a determined penetrating taste that is in no way aggressive. It’s especially suitable as granulated cheese, but it’s also a great table cheese. We eat it especially in dices for aperitivo, but it’s also very good in salad.
In general, people like to use this cheese for meat and vegetable fillings, salty cakes, and gratins. Besides, it’s also popular for refining pasta dishes, risottos, and soups. You should drink young and fresh wines with this kind of cheese.
More than 20 Months of Age
This Grana Padano is rich of complex and characterful flavors. Its dry consistency makes it perfect as granulated powder and table cheese. You should use it with hearty risottos; serve it on a platter or with balsamic vinegar, honey, or marmalade. This cheese goes best with a strong wine with intensive flavor.
Storage of the Grana Padano
You should put your Grana Padano in that box of the fridge that is least cooled. Most times it is the lowest one. The perfect storage temperature is 4°C. Other cheeses might tarnish the flavor, so don't put it next to them. You should wrap the piece of cheese in a cotton or hemp cloth. We always put it in a piece of paper, which also ensures that the Grana Padano keeps its flavor.
How To Enjoy Grana Padano
To enjoy Grana Padano to its fullest, you should take it one hour before serving out of the fridge. To ensure hygiene you should get at least a hard-cheese-knife, but also a little fork is useful. Break the Grana Padano shortly before serving it into pieces. Like this it doesn’t get dry, nor loses its flavor.
Something that goes well with all hard cheeses is Mostarda. Made of fruits and the essence of mustard cores it resembles marmalade. Yet, it is much more spicy and is a specialty typical of the city of Mantova.
Health Benefits of Grana Padano
Grana Padano is not only super delicious it also has a perfect relationship of calorific value, quality, and quality of nutrients. So it has an especially positive influence on children and teens, pregnant women, athletes, and older people.
Because Grana Padano is made of partly skimmed milk, it has a lower calorific value than other kinds of cheese. Also, more than 30% of the contained fats are non-saturated. 30g of Grana Padano contain the same nutrients than one liter of milk.
It also owns a high amount of minerals, such as iodine, selenium, magnesia, phosphor, and calcium. We need phosphor to strengthen our brain cells, for our teeth and bones. Calcium plays a significant role in the nervous system, muscle traction, and cell permeability. Only 50g of Grana Padano contain 600mg of calcium, which is 60% of what we need every day.
Grana Padano is also rich of vitamin B12. Already 50g Grana Padano contain 75% of what we need daily. Thus, this cheese is especially interesting for vegetarians. But the strongest feature of Grana Padano is that it doesn’t contain lactose. So, lactose intolerant people can consume Grana Padano without worries. I know first-hand that this is true. I have a sister that reacts very strong to lactose, but she never has any problems with Grana Padano.
Of course, Grana Padano enjoys high popularity all over the world. It’s a standard in high-class restaurants and also private people enjoy Grana Padano once in a while; foremost, the Germans. Germany is the export country number one for Grana Padano, but also America, France, Switzerland, and Great Britain enjoy the cheese. In addition, it gains popularity in Asian countries, such as Japan, but also China is catching up on the trend.
I experienced the internationality of Grana Padano. Once I went to the factory, where I always buy the cheese. I was chatting with the factory manager when he got a call from Japan. He had to hand me the phone because he doesn’t speak English.