A pillar in traditional Italian cuisine.
Lidia Bastianich’s earliest memories of eating Grana Padano cheese were right after World War II ended. Bastianich, now a best-selling Italian cookbook author and award-winning TV chef, was six years old at the time. She was living in her native Pola, now part of Croatia and a little over 300 miles east, over the Adriatic Sea, of the Po River Valley where centuries ago this iconic Italian cheese was first crafted.
“Grana Padano was a luxury cheese at that time. I recall grandma had a piece stashed away, and she would bring it out for me to grate on Sundays. I still recall the complex milky aroma as I grated it. My treat was the granular pieces that fell in the grating process,” says Bastianich, who now lives in New York and whose October-released cookbook, “Lidia’s A Pot, A Pan, and a Bowl”, features Grana Padano in several recipes, including One-Pan Chicken and Eggplant.
A Millennia In the Making
Grana Padano is a hard, crumbly-textured cheese native to northern Italy. So, the story goes, the cheese’s history traces back nearly a millennia to 1134 AD and the Chiaravalle Abbey located in the fertile Po River Valley. The Benedictine monks raised cattle and needed to find a way to preserve the milk since they had a surplus and needed to prevent its spoilage. Experimentation led them to heat the milk and break the cheese curds into rice-sized pieces. Then they extracted as much whey as possible. This was done in special vats inside the monasteries, which are considered the first dairies. The result was a drier, rougher, crystalized textured cheese that could be eaten long after being made by as much as two years or more.
“The monks called it caseus vetus or old cheese. The people who were not familiar with Latin gave it another name, derived from the peculiarity of the compact, grainy paste. Thus, the name Grana cheese was born,” says Anna Gallo, director of sales and marketing for Savello USA, Inc., in Wilkes-Barre, PA. The company imports its Grana Padano D.O.P. from four-generation, family-owned Dalla Bona in the town of Carpenedolo.
Throughout the centuries, the Po Valley-produced Grana became increasingly popular. It was a staple in the diet of farmers, peasants and the people of the region, and it became the centerpiece of Renaissance banquets, treasured by princes and dukes. In historical records mentioning the cheese, there was a letter from Isabella d’Este, the spouse of Francesco II Gonzaga and Marquess of Mantua. In 1504, Isabella sent the renowned cheese as a gift to her relatives, the Dukes of Ferrara.
By No Other Name
Grana was originally named for the town in the Po River Valley in which it was produced. For example, there was Grana Milanese from Milan, Grana Lodesano from Lodi and Grana Piacenza from Piacentino.
“In 1951, during a cheese convention of dairy owners and experts, the word ‘Padano’ was added, which translated means ‘from the Po River Valley’. From then on, it has been called Grana Padano,” explains Stefano Berni, general director of the Grana Padano Protection Consortium, headquartered in Brescia, Italy.
The Protection Consortium was founded in 1954 to ensure the tradition of Grana Padano would remain true to its roots. In 1996, Grana Padano was granted D.O.P. or Protected Designation of Origin status, further developing safeguards to protect the cheese and define its production areas. Today, over 40,000 people representing over 4,500 farms, dairies and aging facilities in over 30 Northern Italian provinces—from lands touching Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto and some areas of Trento and the province of Piacenza in Emilia Romagna—produce authentic Grana Padano. Last year, this translated into the making of 5.2 million 75-pound wheels. Over 2 million were exported, with the top four places being Germany, France, Belgium-the Netherlands-and Luxembourg and the U.S.
“All Grana Padano has a very distinct rind with unique markings and a fire-branded seal that is only added to wheels certified by the Consortium,” tells Tess McNamara, head of salumi and formaggi for New York-based Eataly North America. In other words, “the rind tells it all.”
Grana Padano D.O.P. cheese starts with raw milk from cows fed hay, corn and alfalfa. The cows are milked twice, day and evening, and the milk is left to sit overnight so that it naturally separates with the cream rising to the top. The partially skimmed milk is then placed in upturned bell-shaped vats made of copper. The milk is coagulated using a natural whey starter, which comes from the previous day’s cheesemaking, with pure calf rennet. After coagulation, the curd is chopped into small grains with a giant whisk-like instrument called a ‘spino’. The curd is heated to 128 degrees F, rested for about an hour, and then fashioned into twin wheels also perfect as a topping for meats and vegetables, for sauces and gratins, or shaved on beef carpaccio or a green salad.
Grana aged 16 to 20 months is straw yellow and has a savory flavor and fragrance reminiscent of nuts and hay. It is crunchy to the bite, due to the crystals of calcium lactate. This vintage is ideal for hot dishes like souffles and quiches, and pasta sauces, risottos and soups. It of cheese. The wheels are wrapped in linen cloths and placed in successive molds, first plastic, then steel to create the distinctive shape. Wheels are soaked in brine for about two weeks. Then the aging begins.
Thrice is Nice
Each wheel of cheese needs to age for a minimum of nine months. 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, the Grana Padano can be additionally aged from 16 to 20 months and up to 24-months.
“Most Grana Padano found on the market is not promoted by its age profile, but simply labelled Grana Padano. We work closely with the Consortium of Grana Padano to source various productions (or caseifici) of the cheese to showcase the diversity of its profiles. All of our stores in North America carry and celebrate three vintages,” says Eataly’s McNamara.
The youngest profile, Grana Padano aged for 9 to 12 months, has a pale-yellow color, delicate taste with a mild milky flavor. The texture, which resembles butter and cream, makes this age a winner for cheeseboards or paired with young white and sparkling wines. This age also pairs well with young, moderately intense red wines.
Twenty- to 24-month aged Grana has a distinctive, sophisticated and robust flavor that is not overpowering. At this stage, the texture is grainy with a radical fracture into flakes, even white or star color, yet still delicate. This age stands up well on a cheeseboard paired with fruits, nuts and chutneys as well as with a full-body and rich red wine. It’s also a perfect after-dinner cheese paired with a sweet dessert wine.
Old World Meets New
Knowing exactly where your food comes from, good nutrition and concerns over food waste are hot buttons with consumers today. Grana Padano is an old-world favorite that ticks the boxes on all three trends.
On the first day of production, each wheel receives a casein plate placed on the wheel’s flat side. This has a number on it, which traces back to the dairy, the cauldron/vat it was produced in, and, consequently, the day of the production. It is like the “passport” of the wheel: each wheel is different,” says the Consortium’s Berni.
Grana Padano is nutrient-rich, with plenty of muscle-building protein and bone-building calcium. In fact, 1 ounce of cheese equals approximately 1 pint of milk in nutritional value.
“It’s a good snack for kids. And, because of the production method and long aging process, the cheese is lactose-free, meaning it’s easy to digest. I also have friends who take it with them to the gym,” says Giacomo Veraldi, CEO of Brooklyn, NY-based Ambrosi Foods USA, which imports its Grana Padano from its Ambrosi Creamery in Castenedolo, in the Brescia province. “That’s why we introduced the Grana Padano Pezzo, a 20-gram individually wrapped cheese snack stick.”
Veraldi adds that Grana Padano is ‘eat-all’, even the rind. “In the town I grew up in in Italy there is a festival every year ,and one of the favorite snacks is grilled Grana Padano rinds.”
To make this snack, scrape the Grana’s rind clean with a serrated knife. Then, wash and dry the rind, cut into 1-inch by 1-inch squares, and place them on a plate over a hot grill. After a few seconds, as the rinds begin to swell slightly, turn over and heat on the other side for a few seconds. Serve immediately, ideally with a crudité of veggies dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. A non-stick pan over the stove or microwave on medium for two minutes also does the trick.
In the Kitchen
Use Grana Padano as a food, as a condiment and as an ingredient, suggests Savello USA’s Gallo. “As a food, enjoy it in small chunks, simply accompanied with bread and perhaps wine, jams or fruits. As a condiment, grate or shave over pastas and vegetables to enrich the flavor. As an ingredient, use in recipes as a pasta filling.
Bastianich finds uses for Grana Padano endless, whether she’s cooking at one of her restaurants such a Becco in New York, where Grana Padano is featured in eight dishes including Caesar Salad, Beef Carpaccio, paired with Prosciutto di San Daniele and in Peperoni Ripieni (cubanelle peppers stuffed with meat, braised in tomato sauce and topped with Grana Padano), or at home with family.
“I love lots of it in my soups as well to finish my pasta dish but I especially like it when I make ‘Polenta Cunsada’ (sliced polenta with cheese), and I top it with lots of Grana Padano and let it get crispy in the oven,” says Bastianich, who adds, “Keep the cheese in the refrigerator wrapped in a clean cloth to prevent it from drying and to get maximum flavor grate the cheese close to usage.” CC
Grana Padano vs. Parmigiano Reggiano
Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano are two of the most famous Italian cheeses. They both have a similar hard crumbly texture, pale yellow color and circular shape. Grana and Parm also have D.O.P designations with ancient origins tied to the land, and it’s where they are produced that is one difference as well as the milk.
“The larger flat area above the Po River is where Grana comes from, and it is a smaller area below the river where Parm is produced,” says Veraldi. “Another difference is that dairies making Grana use milk from two milkings done the same day of production, while for Parm is made from semi-skim milk from a milking the night before and whole milk from a fresh milking that morning.”
Yet, those who seek out authentic Grana will find the same allure of Parm. For example, Rogers Collection has an Ancient Breed Parmigiano Reggiano Program, with cheese made from heritage breeds local to the region: The Vacca Rossa (red cow), the Alpina Bruna (brown cow) and the Bianca Modenese (white cow). The importer, based in Yarmouth, ME, is one of the only importers that brings in Parmigiano Reggiano made from all three heritage breeds. One is the Grana d’Oro Vacche Rosse Parmigiano Reggiano.
“The Castellani family is a small farmstead producer of this Red Cow Parmigiano Reggiano, and the only producer solely using the milk of their own herd, a herd of 120 cows that graze the meadows along the Enza river, a tributary of the Po, in the Apennine mountains, to make the cheese. Grana d’ Oro only produces four to five wheels of cheese per day,” says Carrie Blakeman, managing director.
The two favorite ways owners Matteo and his wife Luciana Castellani enjoy using their Grana d’Oro, says Davenport, are in Cappelletti, a tortellini-like stuffed pasta, and Passatelli, a pasta made with grated Parm, eggs and breadcrumbs and cooked in chicken broth.
One-Pan Chicken and Eggplant
From Lidia’s a Pot, a Pan, and a Bowl by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali. Copyright © 2021 by Tutti a Tavola, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
One-Pan Chicken and Eggplant
Pollo e Melanzane alla Parmigiana
Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 55 minutes
This is chicken-and-eggplant parmigiana all cooked and layered in one skillet. I brown both ingredients in olive oil, but skip the breading, which saves time and is healthier, and then proceed to make the sauce, top with cheese, and—done! Quick and delicious.
• 1 medium Italian eggplant
(about 12 oz) Parmigiana
• Kosher salt
• 1½ pounds thinly sliced on a bias, boneless, skinless chicken
breast (about 12 pieces)
• All-purpose flour, for dredging
• Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
• 4 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
• 1 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
• Peperoncino flakes
• ¼ cup chopped fresh basil leaves
• 1½ cups grated low-moisture mozzarella
• ½ cup freshly grated Grana Padano
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Remove vertical stripes of peel from the eggplant with a vegetable peeler. Slice the eggplant crosswise on the bias into ¼-inch-thick slices, ideally about 12 in total. Season with ½ teaspoon salt. Season the chicken pieces with 1 teaspoon salt. Spread the flour in a shallow bowl, and lightly dredge the eggplant and the chicken.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add a thin film of olive oil. Brown the eggplant in batches, 2 or 3 minutes per batch, removing them to a plate as they brown. Add more oil, if needed. Brown the chicken in batches, 2 to 3 minutes per batch, removing the pieces to the same plate as the eggplant (if they will fit) as they brown. Discard the oil, and wipe the pan clean with a paper towel.
Return the skillet to medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the garlic, and cook until it’s sizzling, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and ½ cup water. Season with ½ teaspoon salt and a large pinch of peperoncino. Simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the basil.