Why this heralded cheese has stood the test of time.
There are many reasons to enjoy the nutty flavor of Grana Padano, but one that many turophiles may not be aware of is that this northern Italian cheese is lactose free.
For many consumers browsing the cheese counter, this is not its main selling point. They might be more inclined to try it because, unlike some hard cheeses, the rind can also be eaten by adding it to a soup or stew, or they might simply want a change from Parmigiano Reggiano.
However, for many communities where lactose intolerance is prevalent, this crumbly-textured cheese offers them the full pasta experience; they can grate away over a plate of spaghetti or shave it over layers of lasagne.
According to the publishers of the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” in 2017 some 36% of the American population was lactose intolerant. That’s around a third of the population that should avoid cheese, but this figure also offers Grana Padano a significant market.
A Rich History
The absence of lactose in Grana Padano is a consequence of its natural production process, first formulated by Benedictine monks in the Po River Valley region, which hosts the longest river in Italy. The Po flows eastward across northern Italy starting from the Cottian Alp. For centuries, its fertile plain has fed the cows that produce the milk Grana Padano is known for.
Today, little has changed other than the upgrading of technical equipment. The cows are fed with hay, corn and alfalfa and still milked twice per day, with the milk sitting overnight so that it naturally separates with the cream rising to the top. The partially skimmed milk is then poured into copper vats and coagulated using a natural whey starter, which comes from the previous day’s cheesemaking.
According to the cheese’s Protection Consortium, founded in 1954 to secure the tradition of Grana Padano cheese production, this dense ‘cacio’ (cheese) was first produced in the cellars of monasteries, the first dairies in history.
It was here, under the monks’ tuition, that certain professional roles such as the ‘casaro’ began to emerge. The ‘casaro’ is an expert in the art of cheesemaking.
It was a skill that took time and patience, with monks apprenticing for many years before being allowed to make even one wheel on their own.
The cheese has a long aging process, leading to the monks calling it ‘caseus vetus’, which translates to ‘old cheese’. Each wheel of cheese is aged for a minimum of nine months.
The name distinguished Grana Padano from the fresh cheeses that, at the time, had to be eaten quickly. This also made it a favorite among the different economic classes, as it could be stored to provide sustenance during times of scarce produce.
Mark of Quality
Today, testers from the Consortium and an impartial third party examine the cheese and decide if it should receive its fire-branded mark on the rind to certify quality. Beyond that, Grana Padano can be additionally aged from 16 to 20 months and up to 24 months.
Although technically because of its low moisture content one could store it in a cool, dark room, just as the monks did so many years ago, it’s best placed in a refrigerator and ideally in a sealed, airtight container. If stored correctly, it can be kept almost indefinitely without it spoiling.
This makes it a hero ingredient for many chefs, but they also prize it for its flaky, crumbly texture that adds a distinctive, savory flavor to a dish. Grana Padano ambassador Francesco Mazzei has created numerous recipes, using his impressive culinary skills developed both in Italy and in the competitive kitchens of London and Singapore.
“The cheese is very versatile, throughout the last eight years of my collaboration with Grana Padano I’ve developed about 80 recipes,” he says
“For me, the best way to cook with Grana Padano is still the simple way; put the rind in a minestrone or your favorite soup, or to create a cheese fondue, which is a fantastic addition to most of our veggie dishes.
“[However], the best dish is the simplest one — spaghetti, tomato, basil and Grana Padano. You can’t beat it. Simple but the best ingredients.”
Mazzei’s advice to use the golden rind as well as the cheese is part of a growing movement for reducing food waste. According to a 2020 study by the “American Journal of Agricultural Economics,” the average American household wasted 31.9% of its food.
The total annual cost of the wasted food was estimated to be $240 billion or $1,866 per household. The data came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) and included 4,000 households.
Another Italian export, the Slow Food Movement, started in Piedmont in the 1980s and then taken up in America in 2000, advocates taking a sustainable approach to food in order not to waste it by using all parts of the vegetable and meat where it is safe to do so.
Grana Padano is a great example of an ‘eat-all’ food, with nothing going in the bin if cooked correctly, as the rind is jam-packed with flavor. It just needs a little work to be extracted. As Mazzei directs, throw it into a soup, risotto, stew, or even a pot of beans, and let it simmer for an hour or two.
A Gourmet Delight
Mazzei has a long association with Grana Padano, way before he was invited to represent the cheese and create the many mouth-watering dishes that appear on both his and the Grana Padano websites.
Born and raised in Calabria, the toe on Italy’s boot, as a child he looked forward to the days when the family would be ‘treated’ to Grana Padano.
“In Calabria, we used to have Pecorino every single day, but mamma used to buy us Grana Padano once a week as a special treat,” he recalls. “But of course, the Grana Padano never made it as far as the pasta, because we ate it straight from the fridge as a snack. Too tempting.”
Mazzei, who at the age of 34 opened the L’Anima restaurant in London where dishes from Calabria, Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia took center stage, says that Grana Padano also makes for a wonderful dessert as part of a cheeseboard. Something he likes to serve following a special dinner.
“One of my favorite dishes is my roast chicken (or capun) stuffed with anellini or bucatini (small pasta shapes),” he says. “[It’s] from my book “Mezzogiorno”. This is one I make for my own family, usually on Christmas day, which always brings special memories.”
Should consumers want to follow the Mazzei family and add Grana Padano to their cheeseboards then the advice is to accompany it with something sweet, like dates, figs or a dab of good honey.
International cheese producer Castello, founded in 1893 by master cheesemaker Rasmus Tholstrup, offers a wonderful selection of tips and pairings for cheese boards on its website that guides consumers towards the perfect mix. And, of course, the Castello’s Grana Padano features within the selection, especially as the producer takes such pride in its product.
Castello describes the cheesemaking process as like a painter caressing a canvas with purpose and precision and adds “a single misstep could spoil the cheese, emphasizing that skill and artisanship is key during the entire process”. It still uses traditional techniques to bring this cheese to a mass audience.
For another well-known cheese producer, Saputo Inc. in Montreal, Canada, Grana Padano, which is sold under its Stella brand, especially comes into its own during moments of celebrations.
“The nutty flavor is a primary attraction for using Grana Padano in recipes, especially during the holiday season as it pairs beautifully with dried fruits and nuts,” says Jenny Englert, senior marketing manager, Saputo Specialty Cheese.
“However, the nutty flavor profile also compliments classic Italian dishes, such as mushroom and pea risotto, enhancing the silky texture and flavors of baby bella mushrooms for a perfectly balanced bowl of comforting pasta.”
Englert adds that the producer has seen demand for the cheese rise by over 9% in the last two years, which although does not seem like a huge increase, when set against consumer behavior, it’s doing well.
As Englert explains, “In some categories, like Italian cheese (and more specifically, Parmesan), consumers plan to make a purchase in advance, but frequently don’t decide on the brand of cheese to purchase until they’re standing in front of the specialty cheese case or at the point of purchase online.”
The Stella Grana Padano Wedge is aged an extra five months to give the cheese “medium seasoning.” Englert adds that this means the taste, although more pronounced, will easily link other flavors together, making them more harmonic in any dish.
“Additionally, All Stella Grana Padano wheels are produced in cheese factories in the areas of Mantova, Brescia, Piacenza, Trento and Cuneo—close to the fresh supply of milk from the Po Valley region,” she says.
“There are multiple reasons customers love The Stella Import collection; as it’s the embodiment of its heritage, featuring rich, flavorful cheeses that transport consumers back to northern Italy where the brand’s journey began. Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are two of the world’s most beloved cheeses in Italy and beyond.”
Indeed, this golden Grana Padano cheese appeals to all who wish to enjoy a taste of Italy, wherever they might be dining.
GRANA PADANO SOFT POLENTA AND WILD MUSHROOMS
This recipe calls for a fine stone-ground polenta that has been slowly simmered in stock for at least 45 minutes. It is the slow absorption that gives the polenta its irresistible buttery texture. I add Grana Padano Riserva 24 months to enhance its richness and serve it topped with stewed wild mushrooms for comfort on a cold rainy day.
For the polenta:
½ cup chicken stock
5 oz good quality polenta
1 ½ Tbsp butter
1 ½ oz Grana Padano Riserva 24 months
For the mushrooms:
2 Tbsp olive oil
10 ½ oz assorted wild mushrooms
¼ cup griotte onion, thickly sliced
3 Tbsp veal gravy or left-over roast gravy
½ oz each parsley and sage, roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Mix the stock and polenta in a saucepan and slowly bring to a simmer, whisking occasionally. Simmer very gently for at least 45 minutes, whisking from time to time then more frequently towards the end of cooking. Add the butter and Grana Padano, adjust seasoning according to the saltiness of your stock. When ready, the polenta should be very liquid, soft and silky.
Using a soft brush, wipe the dirt from the mushrooms, trim the ends and roughly chop the larger ones.
When the polenta is almost ready, pan-fry the mushrooms in batches, according to the individual cooking time. Set aside on a plate while you cook the next batch. When all the mushrooms have been cooked, pan-fry the onion slices for a couple of minutes. Add the mushrooms back into the pan, along with the gravy and herbs. Season well and cook for about a minute, just enough to reheat the mushrooms and coat them with the sauce.
Spoon some polenta on a serving plate and top with the mushrooms and juices.
SPAGHETTI GRANA PADANO WITH PINK PEPPERCORN AND AMALFI LEMON
1 lb spaghetti
3 ½ oz Grana Padano Riserva, grated
1 tsp pink peppercorns, crushed
1 tsp pink peppercorns, whole to garnish
1 Amalfi lemon (peel zested, and juice reserved)
4 Tbsp butter
In a separate pan, melt the butter, add three quarters of the lemon zest and the crushed pink peppercorns.
When the pasta is almost cooked (and is al dente), use a pair of tongs (or drain the pasta but keep some of the water) and put the pasta in the pan with the lemon and pepper. Gradually add a little of the pasta water, (no more than 200 ml) and stir energetically.
Take off the stove, add the lemon juice, sprinkle the Grana Padano Riserva on top and then garnish with the remaining lemon zest and whole peppercorns.