Grana Padano, one of the world’s most ancient hard cheeses, is truly beloved. It’s the most popular cheese in Italy and the most widely consumed Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheese in the world, with over 5 million wheels made each year with almost a quarter of Italy’s milk production. There’s good reason it’s so sought after and celebrated. The firm, crumbly wheels are luxuriously sweet, nutty, fragrant and outstanding.
Because Parmigiano Reggiano gets the moniker “the King of Cheese,” it’s easy to think of Grana Padano as its less famous cousin. Sure, there are plenty of similarities between the two delicious cheeses. But Grana Padano is a worthy, wonderful cheese in its own right, with a rich history and its own culinary bona fides — worth savoring and celebrating.
But first, some traits Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano share: They are both crafted in the valley of the Po, Italy’s longest river. They both possess PDO distinction. Grana cheeses are generally mature, hard cheeses made in large format wheels and used for grating, although all can be enjoyed as table cheeses, especially at younger ages. In fact, younger Grana Padano is worth seeking out.
That’s the first of its distinctions. “Grana Padano is quite good when it’s young,” says Jen Lopez, senior manager of business development at Forever Cheese and a member of the Guilde des Fromagers. “Grana Padano can be released as early as nine months, and at this stage of aging it remains milky and creamy in texture — for an aged cheese it’s soft.”
If this sounds like a contradiction, since the cheese is in the hard cheese category, think of it as right in the middle — it has a firm texture with some supple give. At this age, it’s ideal for shaving with a cheese plane into delicate ribbons. “Shaved ribbons of Grana Padano on top of cherry galette is my idea of how to relish cherry season,” says Lopez.
Another difference is that cattle used for Grana Padano are allowed to feed on 50% grain matter in addition to grass-feeding. The grain-feeding creates a slightly fattier and sweeter milk, and the younger age creates a paste that, while still granular in texture, is slightly creamier and less crumbly than Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Ashley Noëlle Morton, who goes by Brieyoncé The Cheese Maven, loves Grana Padano because “it is flexible, approachable, and goes with almost everything.” She seeks it out for its “right mixture of salty, nutty, crunchy, fruity, and a smacky mouthfeel.” Morton has traveled a lot over the past several years — she’s from New York City and now lives in France — and finds Grana Padano a staple around the world. “It has considerable reach and is likely to be found at a local supermarket or your favorite cheese shop,” she says. “There are always a few certain foods we have as comfort staples, and Grana Padano is one for me.”
A Storied History
Grana Padano is born of the land above Italy’s Po River. Padano means “of the Po” in Italian. The Po, Italy’s longest river, flows eastward from France and empties into the Adriatic Sea, near Venice. Here, wide swaths of valley grasslands and rolling hills extend into the Alpine foothills. From the pianura padana, the planes of Padana, comes Grana Padano.
Around 1100 A.D., Cistercian monks settled the area from Switzerland and France. Cows give milk twice a day, and that milk spoils fast. The monks needed a way to preserve the milk and feed themselves, and their visitors, through long, cold winters. They landed on something much like the Grana Padano we know and love today. The word grana means “grain,” and it refers to the size of the cheese curds — each as small as a single grain of rice.
Today, Grana Padano is made in 28 provinces across the Po Valley, an area that stretches across the regions of Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont, Trentino and Veneto. (A much larger area of production than Parmigiano Reggiano.)
The cheese is available in a variety of ages, starting at nine-16 months. Once it has matured past that stage, it is referred to as Grana Padano Oltre 16 mesi. At 20 months of aging, it is sold as Riserva cheese.
As Grana Padano continues to age, its flavor intensifies and its texture becomes crumbly and firm, although never dry. The cheese develops studs of tyrosine crystals, which impart that addictive, fantastic crunch. Ideal for grating, Riserva Oro del Tempo, aged for 20 months or more, makes everything it touches — roasted meats, eggplant, soup, pasta — instantly special. It’s also great on a cheese plate with syrupy aged balsamic vinegar, or with sweet melon and Prosciutto di Parma.
One top quality producer is Agriform, who partners with some of the most important cooperative dairies of Northeastern Italy to make, mature, and sell top quality cheese representative of the flavor and history of the region. The heart of Agriform is the co-op of more than 300 farmers, who carefully tend the land as their families have done for generations.
Their Grana Padano is crafted from fresh, raw cow’s milk from two daily milkings, then partially skimmed by allowing the cream to rise naturally. The wheels are aged for at least nine months (for table cheese) and up to 20 months or more (for Riserva Oro del Tempo).
Kinara: A Grana-Esque Unicorn
At a farm in the Stura Valley, sheltered on two sides by the Alps and to the east by the hills of the Langhe, the Fiandino family has been making cheese since the 18th century. “This is notable even for an Italian family,” explains Lopez. “Farming and raising Bruna Alpina cows is how the caseificio began, and it still maintains a herd of 200 Bruna Alpina that live just a few paces from the creamery.”
Along with milk properties ideal for cheese production, this breed has big expressive eyes and long lashes. “If you need to cast a cow, this is the perfect cow,” says Lopez.
The Fiandino family began cheese making with Emmentaler and eventually transitioned to Grana Padano. Mario and Egidio, the two cousins who now run the family farm wanted to do something new, and after years of making Grana Padano, began making cheese exclusively with thistle rennet. “While cardoon does grow wild in the slopes of the Stura, using thistle as a coagulant is not typical for this region or Italy. Kinara marries their mastery of making Grana Padano with this radical rennet choice,” says Lopez.
What makes the Fiandino cheeses distinct from other thistle cheese is they are large format with much longer aging than we see in traditional thistle rennet cheese. Lopez explains, “historically these cheeses have been made with sheep’s milk, using cow’s milk was another pioneering endeavor. I affectionately call them unicorns.”
Using thistle rennet is not only quite costly compared to alternative rennet sources, it also takes a highly skilled cheesemaker to turn out quality cheese consistently. “Using this method at this scale was risky, but the results have been fruitful and sets them apart from hundreds of producers making traditional hard cheese,” says Lopez.
Kinara has floral aromas and a pleasant tang and acidity. It performs like a dream in the kitchen and like Grana Padano, it is lovely when it is young. Kinara, like Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, is made with raw cow’s milk, but it is vegetarian because of its plant-based rennet source. It’s also Halal. It’s a cheese that looks like others but is actually beautifully unique.
How to Make the Most of Grana Padano
“I eat Grana Padano most often with eggs,” Lopez shares. “A quick omelet when I’m too tired and lazy to make something more ambitious is infinitely better when topped off with fluffy cloud of Grana Padano grated on a microplane. Suddenly, its fancy.”
It’s also wonderful grated over pasta and risotto.
Morton’s “new favorite way to eat Grana Padano is to grill the fruit with a little thyme, black pepper and sea salt. That combo of slightly tart sweetness with the pop of pepper melds so harmoniously with the sturdy, cozy warmth that Grana offers.”
Younger Grana Padano, redolent of fresh cream and cultured butter, still packs a punch of rich flavor. It is fantastic slivered over spinach salads, roasted veggies or carpaccio. It’s also great on a cheese platter paired with dates or dried fruits, olives and Bresaola, the air-dried beef crafted in the same region. It adds depth without overwhelming a delicate dish, and pairs beautifully with crisp, bright white wines or a farmhouse ale.
Aged Grana Padano is complex and bold enough to stand up to big reds like Barolo or Brunello. It also makes a true treat for dessert, even more so paired with sparkling Moscato or Vin Santo beside shards of milk chocolate.
Morton believes people don’t give Grana Padano enough credit when they classify it solely as a grating cheese. “It is a wonderfully versatile cheese that it is way underutilized,” she explains. “Grana is great in the kitchen with baking, soups, stews, shaved, melted or crumbled. It is a ‘24-hour’ cheese, meaning it will be delectable for any meal of the day. I think a lot of the time people feel restricted to play creatively with food because it has been introduced in a certain medium. Grana is an ideal choice to start to break these patterns and explore.”
With its rich history, incredible quality, and excellent flavor, there’s plenty to explore.