“Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.”
Diary of Samuel Pepys, 4 September 1666, as he prepares to save his precious Parmazan from the Great Fire of London
We have been, on a number of occasions now, to stay at the Locanda Dossello – a hotel tucked into rolling vineyards in the heart of Franciacorta in northern Italy.
Almost always we arrive there, tired and crumpled, after a long drive and one particular occasion our local hosts had organised for a crisp, cold bottle of prosecco and a long glass full of broken chunks of hard cheese. It was heaven. We sipped and nibbled looking out over the lush soft green folds as we ran a bubble-filled hot bath and played Nora Jones on the iphone.
The cheese was extraordinarily good and we asked the friendly hotel staff what it was. ‘Grana Padano’ we were told. Creases appeared on our foreheads as we considered this – is it a type of parmesan, or something different. We liked it very much so clearly further investigation was in order.
The name ‘Parmesan’ is the English translation of Parmigiano-Reggiano – the region from which the cheese comes, encompassing the cities of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna (to the left of the Reno river) and Mantova (to the right of Po river).
Grana Padano comes from the Pianura Padana – effectively the Po valley. Grana means ‘grain’.
Both cheeses in fact have a kind of grainy, crystalline texture – Parmigiano-Reggiano is effectively also a kind of grana cheese – just not from the Po valley. The white crystals are tyrosine and are an indication of the level of ripeness. Both cheeses are made in large drum shapes which are cracked open with a specifically designed triangular knife. Both cheeses have DOP protection. Hormones are not allowed to be used in the European Union.
Nothing is wasted. The whey left over from the cheese-making process is used to feed pigs.
Chef Massimo Bottura points out that the cheese rind can be chopped and sliced and added to soups and stews to give texture and seasoning.
The main differences between Parmigiano Reggiano (aka Parmesan) and Grana Padano are:
- Grana Padano is made over a much larger area – partly because of this the price tends to be lower. About 4,800,000 wheels of Grana Padano are produced each year (compared to about 3,400,000 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano), making this Italy’s most produced cheese.
- The cows are grazing on different pastures, different soil. This translates into the cheeses to produce slightly different tastes. The flavour also changes according to the age of the cheese and the time of year in which the cheese is made.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano cows must only feed off grass and cereals grown in the area – they are not given silage (a fermented, high-moisture fodder).
- The cows providing the milk for Parmigiano Reggiano must be milked twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening – and the milk is not allowed to reach a temperature less than 18°C. The milk for Parmigiano-Reggiano must be delivered to the dairy within two hours of the completion of milking. Ensuring that the temperature of the milk does not fall below 18°C is important for the mesophilic lactic bacteria which is responsible for the ripening of the cheese. The cows providing milk for Grana Padano production are also milked twice a day, but the milk only needs to arrive at the cheesery 24 hours after milking and therefore it has to be cooled (although not below 8°C).
- Preservatives are not allowed in the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, whereas in the production of Grana Padano they are allowed – the preservative usually used is lysozyme.
- Grana Padano (made entirely from partially skimmed milk) has a lower fat content than Parmigiano-Reggiano (made from a mix of whole and skimmed milk).
- Grana Padano, therefore, matures more quickly. It’s made to three stages of maturity:a) 9-16 months – when it has a delicate, milky taste and a soft texture, it hasn’t yet developed the graininess for which it’s knownb) 16-20 months – the consortium website says at this stage the cheese tastes of ‘an aroma of hay and dried fruit’. It has developed the grainy texture but the crystals are still not much in evidencec) 20-24 months – the cheese now has a rich buttery flavour and crystals are also there. Parmigiano Reggiano on the other hand takes a minimum of 12 months to mature, and the older varieties take up to 36 months. Any cheese older than two years is known as ‘Stravecchio’. This is another reason why Parmigiano Reggiano is more expensive than Grana Padano. It also results in cash flow problems for the 350 or so Parmigiano Reggiano producers, so sometimes they leave their cheese with their bankers as collateral – the banks have special vaults for storing the cheese.
Obviously there are flavour variations within the individual types of cheese so comparing them directly is not straightforward. Marks and Spencer, for example, sources its award winning parmesan from an artisan mountain creamery. The fresh and rainy climate of the high-altitude pastures produces a softer, cleaner flavoured cheese than that produced in the valleys. But overall the consensus seems to be that Parmigiano Reggiano has a stronger, more complex, perhaps nuttier and saltier taste – while Grana Padano has a softer, subtler taste. For this reason Grana Padano is more usually used in cooking, while Parmesan is more often grated on top of a dish…. and eaten in chunks with prosecco.
In his book, The Production of Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese – the force of an artisanal system in an industrialised world, the author Kees De Roest summarises:
“It is quite clear that the Grana Padano system has gradually moved away from the artisan production process…Significantly reducing the artisan elements in the production process has made this system more vulnerable to imitation. Its degree of typicality has been reduced and its links with the terroir have been relaxed.”
However, what it is not, particularly the higher quality Grana Padano, is a ‘poor man’s Parmesan’, as intimated in a recent episode of the US TV soap, The Bold and the Beautiful. The Grana Padano Consortium is now suing the producers because of the defamation of the cheese caused by the character Charlie Webber who thows a strop after he discovers that he is cooking with Grana Padano rather than Parmesan.
This post is dedicated to Dr Alberto Pecorari of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano who very kindly took the time to check and revise this post. I am indebted to him for his help.
Follow this link for how to make Parmesan crisps.
Substitutes and equivalents
- Substitutes for Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) and Grana Padano are Asiago d’Allevo, Queso Cotija, Romano or Sbrinz.
- 1 cup grated Parmesan or Grana Padano is equal to 100g or 4 oz.