A healthy Italian cheese with gusto.
Beloved in its Italian homeland and throughout Europe, Grana Padano cheese was a familiar sight on the dinner table when chef Danilo Cortellini was growing up in the Abruzzo region. Now Cortellini is passing that tradition on to his own family, and to visitors to the Italian Embassy in London, where he is the head chef.
“There is a culture/heritage factor in my love for it,” says Cortellini. “And it is one of the most nutritious options when it comes to cheeses. In fact, it is the first cheese that my baby daughter ever tasted.”
Grana Padano is a hard cheese with a fine, grainy structure. Its color varies from creamy yellow-white when young to a more straw-yellow when aged, says Stefano Berni, managing director of the Grana Padano Protection Consortium, which represents more than 4,500 farms, dairies and maturing facilities in the Po River Valley region (Pianura Padana), in Northern Italy.
“It has become the world’s best-selling PDO cheese,” according to Berni. Grana’s PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status is the assurance that the cheese is produced, from start to finish, in the Po River Valley.
The name comes from the grainy (grana) texture of the cheese and its regional origin. The flavor varies from milky and creamy when the cheese is young, to mellow and distinctive—but not overpowering—when mature.
When someone tries Grana Padano for the first time, “the impact is powerful,” says Antonino Laspina, director of the Italian Trade Commission in New York. “When you have a product packed with such unique taste that is also healthy, you have a winner.”
Don’t Lose Your Rind!
Cortellini loves to show off his home country’s cheeses and promote inventive ways to use them in a variety of elegant dishes, including his Puffed Buns aka Danini Sfogliati (see recipe accompanying this article).
One of Cortellini’s favorite ways to make the most of Grana Padano is to save the oft-discarded rind, “like my Mum would do,” to use for stocks, sauces and broths.
The Grana Padano rind is distinctive with a diamond design on the outside of the wheel, along with its PDO stamp from the European Union and the alternating words, Grana and Padano.
“How come people have forgotten about the rind?” asks Cortellini. “Did you know that when Grana Padano is diced into small 1cm squares or so, and cooked in the microwave for one minute, it puffs? Yes, it is as simple as that. And you have crispy cheese croutons made of Grana Padano rind.” Cortellini recommends brushing the rind with a dry brush before using.
Grana Padano adds extra flavor to vegetables, meats, eggs, pasta, rice and fruit, says Stefano Berni, managing director of the Grana Padano Protection Consortium. Cortellini also loves to use it in breads as well as in desserts that are baked, cooked or creamed.
To Your Health
Grana Padano is packed with milk nutrients, especially calcium, yet it is lactose-free due to the long aging and production method, says Cortellini. “It is one of the most nutritious options when it comes to cheeses.”
Few other cheeses have the same nutritional values and qualities as Grana Padano, says Laspina. It is highly recommended during weaning and adolescence, for adults, athletes, seniors and pregnant women. A 50g serving meets 60% of the daily requirement for adults and 50% of an adolescent’s requirement.
“It is low in calories, low in fat, naturally lactose-free, rich in minerals like magnesium, zinc, copper and vitamins (B complex, D, E), and high in calcium,” says Laspina. A 2-ounce cube of Grana Padano contains approximately 600 mg of calcium.
There is another health benefit to Grana Padano, say researchers, who believe consuming 1 ounce of cheese a day can ease hypertension (high blood pressure). “Cheese lovers are unaware of the enormous health benefits that many cheeses offer,” says nutrition researcher Babs Hogan of healthycheeselady.com. “Aged Italian cheeses, including Grana Padano, rank high on the list of cheeses that contain nutrients with biological advantages.”
Can a cheese actually help lower your blood pressure? Yes, according to Dr. Giuseppe Crippa, a researcher in Piacenza, Italy, who led a 2018 study on the hypertensive effects of Grana Padano consumption in subjects with mild-to-moderate hypertension.
“We observed normalization of blood pressure in 62% of the subjects,” says Dr. Crippa, a specialist in internal medicine, nephrology, at Piacenza’s Guglielmo da Saliceto Hospital. Fifteen percent of the study population showed a reduction that was not statistically significant.
“I think that the positive answer of the study is quite clear and certain,” says Crippa. “In fact, the methods of the study (randomized, cross-over, double-blind, placebo-controlled) leave no room for doubt or uncertainty about the anti-hypertensive effects of this cheese.”
How does Grana do it? Angiotensin-converting-enzyme (ACE) inhibitors prevent the formation of angiotensin II, a potent vasoconstrictor that causes elevation in blood pressure, explains Dr. Crippa. ACE inhibitors help relax veins and arteries to lower blood pressure in both systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number) readings.
Grana Padano in 2020
“The most recognizable Italian cheeses imported to the United States are Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano,” says Laspina. “Together, they account for 4 tons of cheese exports in the first trimester of 2020. Americans love the taste of Grana Padano for its simplicity, unique and grainy texture and healthy, nutritional values.”
Italy is the top importer to the U.S. of wine, olive oil, cheese, pasta, vinegar and mineral water. Even with a worldwide pandemic, food production in Italy, including cheese production, has not slowed, says Laspina. “Since everything occurs naturally and the human touch is very limited, cheese is being produced 365 days a year.”
Laspina says the first trimester of 2020 registered an uptrend in Italian food imports to the U.S. April, as to be expected, showed some decrease in the U.S. imports of certain food products, but Laspina expressed his confidence in the future. “We know that the U.S. demand for fine Italian foods will soon go back to its pre-pandemic levels,” he says.
“American consumers will not give up their love for good, healthy food. And what can be better than a piece of pure, natural cheese, a glass of excellent wine, a plate of pasta or a bite of fresh bread dipped in high-quality extra virgin olive oil? Italy has been, is and will be always ready to deliver the beautiful, tasty, authentic goods it is recognized and appreciated for,” says Laspina.
Born in the “Monas-dairy”
Grana Padano was born in the Po Valley in the year 1135 at the Chiaravalle Abbey, a few kilometers south of Milan. Cheese production began as a way to preserve the surplus milk in special cauldrons located in monasteries. It is considered to be the first dairy.
Its original name was formaggio di grana (grainy cheese). In June 1951, dairy owners and cheese experts created a European dairy convention to establish product standards regarding the naming of these cheeses, says Berni at Grana Padano Protection Consortium. Grana Lodigiano, which became today’s Grana Padano, was formally recognized.
On April 10, 1954, Italy established rules on the “Protection of Designations of Origins of cheeses.” In 1996, Grana Padano obtained Protected Designation of Origin recognition by the European Union.
Grana Padano Protection Consortium has enlisted ambassadors, such as restaurateur Andrew Carmellini, celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich and Bon Appétit editor Andrew Knowlton, to help educate American foodies about the cheese.
Along with his mission to introduce more Americans to Grana Padano, Berni wants to clear up any misconceptions. “The eternal issue is linked to the word ‘Parmesan’.” Though there are similarities between Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano, “they are two distinct cheeses, produced in two different production areas in Northern Italy.”
The discerning cheese lover will notice the differences, says Berni. “Even in the more aged variety, Grana Padano has a distinctive taste, yet it is sweeter and milder than Parmigiano.”
Under the European Union’s PDO discipline, Grana Padano must be produced locally using fresh raw milk from local cows. Only whey, rennet, lysozyme (antimicrobial enzyme produced by animals) and fine sea salt are added to the milk during the production process, says Laspina.
Milk is processed in cone-shaped, copper-lined cauldrons and formed into cheese wheels. Stored in a maturing warehouse, the cheese ages for a minimum of nine months. The entire Grana Padano production process employs approximately 40,000 people.
Aged to Perfection
“Another key aspect to Grana Padano is its versatility, due to the different aging types,” says Cortellini. “The younger cheese, aged nine to 16 months, is creamy and mild. It’s great as a topping for gratin dishes. The cheese that is aged between 16 to 20 months has a more savory taste and is great in stuffing or sliced on carpaccio. Riserva, aged more than 20 months, has a distinct flavor and crumbly texture that works well in risotto to give it that special extra note.”
The best wine pairing depends on the maturity of the cheese, says Laspina. With a young Grana Padano PDO, choose a smooth wine, “fresh in acidity, with a touch of tannin and light fruity aromas, or an extra dry Prosecco.”
Wines rich in aroma, or full-bodied red wines with a medium-to-long finish, can be served with a Grana Padano vintage that has been aged more than 16 months. Laspina suggests pairing a full-bodied dessert wine, such as Passito di Pantelleria, with Grana Padano Reserve, aged more than 20 months. Each Grana Padano vintage has its own advantage and personality, says Berni, but “all three are superb on their own with a glass of wine or an aperitivo, or on a cheeseboard. It’s perfect for a summer snack but great in any season to give you quick energy.”
Puffed Buns (Danini Sfogliati)
Recipe courtesy of Danilo Cortellini, head chef of the Italian Embassy in London. You may be surprised that these deliciously crispy and fluffy Grana Padano puffed buns are so easy to make.
Chef’s tip: The Grana Padano buns are delicious on their own or with a slice of Parma or San Daniele ham and rocket (arugula) salad for a heavenly snack.
Serves 4-5 people
Preparation time: 60 minutes
1 cup of shaved or grated Grana Padano
1¼ cup of flour, plus extra for dusting
2/3 cup (150ml) of water
2½ rounded tsp (8g) of fresh yeast
2½ oz of softened, unsalted butter (plus extra for greasing)
¾ tsp of salt
Rosemary as garnish
• Prepare the dough like a regular white bread. Melt the yeast in the water, making sure it is at room temperature and then combine the sieved flour and salt. Knead well until smooth and place the dough into a bowl dusted with flour. Cover with cling film or a tea towel and let it proof for about 90 minutes or until it has doubled in size.
• When the dough is ready, dust the working surface with flour, and gently place the dough on it. With the help of a rolling pin, flatten the dough into a 1cm-thick square (or rectangular shape works, too). Now distribute the soft butter evenly over half of the rolled-out dough and cover with the other half as if it was a wallet. Make sure there is no air inside, and seal the edges by pressing them together. Roll out the dough again to a 1cm (or close to ¼ inch) thick square.
• Imagine that the dough is divided in three equal parts. Take one edge of the dough and fold it towards the center, take the other edge of the dough and fold it also towards the center, over the first already folded edge. Flatten the dough again with the rolling pin and repeat to create a layered buttery effect in the Grana Padano buns.
• Once the dough is flattened for the last time, melt the remaining butter and brush the surface of the dough evenly. Scatter over the Grana Padano and roll the dough up into a log, stuffed with lots of Grana Padano cheese.
• Keep the log tight and with a sharp knife cut it into 2cm to 3cm (around an inch) sections to create the buns and place them as you go on a parchment-lined baking tray to form a circle, leaving around 2cm (¾ inch) space between each so as to allow them to grow. Leave the buns to proof for about 45 minutes until they have doubled in size.
• Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Sprinkle some extra Grana Padano over the buns and bake for around 15-18 minutes or until they are evenly golden and puffed. If needed, turn the tray halfway through the cooking time to ensure an even color.
Paccheri with Grana Padano, Pepper and Artichokes
Serves 4 people
Preparation time: 30 minutes
2½ cups paccheri
½ cup Grana Padano
1 garlic clove
extra virgin olive oil
• Clean artichokes and cut them in half, removing choke in the center. Cut into small strips and put in a bowl with water and lemon juice.
• Lightly brown a clove of garlic in a large non-stick pan with a drizzle of olive oil, add drained artichokes and stir fry 4-5 minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste.
• Cook the pasta in lots of salted water, set aside ½ glass of cooking water and drain the pasta when al dente. Add paccheri to the pan with the artichokes, add the cooking water and cook for 1 minute on high heat.
• Turn heat off, add some grated Grana Padano. Stir well and serve pasta immediately.