HISTORY OF GRANA & PARMIGIANO REGGIANO
… to be piled in tall stacks and kept from one year to the next, considerably improving in intensity and taste.
Someone might be tempted to make a highly improbable connection between the monks of Chiaravalle and the Templars (will we soon find “The Mysteries of the Secret Grail-Padano in the bookshops?), but it was the mysterious alchemy of fire and an empiricism devoid of biochemical knowledge – in short, the knowledge and necessities of the time – which performed the miracle which would then be repeated every day until now, for almost 1000 years.
On the example of Bernardo di Claivaux’s Cistercians, other abbeys to the north of the Po began transforming the abundant milk – bought from peasants or in the markets – into caseus vetus (old cheese), soon renamed “grana” cheese reflecting its appearance. In just a few years, the entire Padana plain from one side to the other of the Po became a flourishing market for “grana” cheese, with buyers coming by road and water from Venice, Rome and Florence. The towns of Lodi, Piacenza, Milan, Brescia, Mantova and Parma stood out for the best quality products and as early as the 13th century the best cheeses were used as goods for trading or payment.
It is no coincidence that the word “grana” became a synonym for money throughout the Lombardy and Veneto area! Today it’s easy to say Grana! But it takes a little longer to make this cheese which, “in winter and then in summer, even when made by the same cheese maker in the same dairy” has “such great variability it is as if you were looking at two different types of cheese”.
Depending on the period of production, you can find cheeses made with summer milk from grazing cows (maggengo, yellower, tastier, fattier and softer), or in winter with the sweet slightly acid milk typical of cows fed on dry forage, known as vernenghi and tending to be paler, slightly less fatty and with a less fragrant taste and aroma.
The watershed between the two types is quartiroli made in the autumn from milk from cows fed with green forage (the fourth (or quarto) and last cutting of the grass). A place is a space with a distinctive characteristic. Each product of a place – led by Grana cheese – is inspired by the genius-loci or guardian “spirit” of that place, the promoter of life, guardian of all things, essence of character and catalyst of atmosphere. In ancient times, people considered.
the environment as the sum of certain definite characteristics and recognised the vital importance of “coming to an agreement” with the spirit of the place where they lived. It would, perhaps, be worth remembering more often that the survival of the human species depends on a good relationship with the world, both physically and mentally.
The Padana plain is much more than just a geographical place and the history of Grana cheese is the ancient and inexhaustible demonstration of this. A cheese which, like an Idea, is borne from the ingenuity and good sense of those capable of looking around them, of reading between the lines of the contingent (intelligere as the Romans put it). He who manages to understand the sense of the genius-loci has understood the “character” of a place, the air you breath there, the possibilities for interacting with the world ethically, profitably, and sustainably.
Seen in this light, Grana becomes much more than a cheese, it is the people of the Padana, the colours of the houses in the village, the sky glimpsed between the trees of a wood, the fragrance of the countryside and the grass.
In paintings in Pompeii, the genius-loci is depicted as a serpent ready to strike anyone who dares undermine the health and happiness of those living in that place. Perhaps it is just the absolutely amazing effect of this ancient 36- month old Piacenza maggengo I am comforting myself with (even the mouse finds it hard to slide among the crumbs on the mat, but that is only to be expected given the predilection of mice for cheese..!), but while I am admiring this sinuous Pompeii serpent, it seems to turn into a river, or rather the Great Po River. Could it be that the genius-loci of Grana is the Po? Is the Great River a single place of men and memory?
Does it therefore make sense to give different identities to the banks whose geographic opposition is not sufficient grounds to claim cultural distinction? If you think about it, the dichotomy between Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, in short, between the right bank and left bank of the Po, is a relatively recent debate and perhaps of more pettily economic interest rather than sociological relevance.
Without wanting to belittle the importance of the Denomination of Origins, before the birth of the consortiums (in the mid 1900s) there was only GRANA: vernengo or maggengo, mature or seasoned, at the most, from the hill or from the plain – full stop.
The rivalry between Grana from Piacenza (which, although on the right bank of the Po like Ferrara, Forlì and Ferrara, nevertheless adds the “Padano” signature to its Grana) and Grana from Parma was probably already well-developed halfway through the 16th century when the Farnese family transferred the capital of its Duchy from Piacenza to Parma.
As early as 1334, the name Grana appeared in the refectory register of the Priors of Florence and Benvenuto da Imola noted that on their journeys by sea, merchants usually took stocks of Grana from Piacenza with them as it “kept better and was more resistant to all diseases”. In the 16th century, the most esteemed Grana was therefore from Piacenza and considerable quantities of this were mixed with the Grana from Parma, equally esteemed, at least as far as Pantalone da Confienza noted a century earlier.
Whatever the case, customs disputes sprang up between the two cities and cheese-making rivalry led to Parma and Reggio identifying themselves as a single production area (but Charlemagne had already recognised the area as belonging to the County of Reggio, but the dioceses of Parma) and claiming the due protectionist measures.
After centuries of legal disputes and battles, particularly against Grana from Lodi, in 1954 the Consortium for the Production and Safeguarding of Parmigiano Reggiano was set up, using its symbol to mark only those cheeses held to correspond rigorously to its code of production and coming from the 600 authorised dairies. From the other side of the Po – but also in certain remnants of Emilia Romagna – it is all Grana Padano and watched over by a Consortium which in no way plays second fiddle to that of Parmigiano Reggiano, never losing sight of the thousands of years of Grana tradition, guaranteeing the quality and origin of the milk (always and exclusively unpasteurised), protecting the characteristics of production and seasoning and even vouching for the diet of the cows.
The most banal distinction between the two denominations places the accent on the fact that Parmigiano is a cheese from the hills, while Padano starts out life on the plain, originating two different milks with characteristics as different as forage and grass. But to tell the whole truth, some Padano is produced in the hills, at Oltrepo and in the provinces of Bergamo, Como, Brescia and Varese for example, and numerous “plain” dairies make Parmigiano.
And then, to come clean and without sparing words, the primogeniture of Grana belongs to the Po alone.
Certainly, Padano started life near the Abbey of Chiaravalle thanks to the Cistercian Benedictines who developed the dairy farming and cheese making system, but it was the people of this area, on both sides of the Po, who gave sense, nobility and value to a cheese unequalled anywhere in the world. On the debate of right versus left (with respect to the course of the Great River), for my patriotic delight, I give below the opinion of a first class gourmet who cannot be accused of parochialism, Alexandre Dumas. In his “Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine” from 1872 under the heading “parmigiano” the great writer says: “…despite its current name, this cheese is not actually made at Parma but in and around Lodi”
To try and shed light on the types of product, it is worth remembering that “Grana Padano” includes at least five other noble Grana cheeses (go back and read again what I said earlier about the DOPs which absorb and standardise the pearls of our larder…):
• “Grana Mantovano” made with milk from cows fed on alfalfa and maize in those parts of Mantova province to the left of the Po (other parts on the opposite side produce P a r m i g i a n o – R e g g i a n o ) ;
• “Grana Lodigiano” or Granone, a “historic” Grana produced in the area between Lodi and Pavia. It has a more granular texture and after cutting tends to oxidise, becoming greenish. It practically disappeared in 1980, but a few years ago a number of dairies in and around Lodi stubbornly insisted on reviving it. It is strong and when freshly cut, a characteristic “tear” or drop appears between the grains due to the fact that the cheese is not pressed;
• “Grana Bresciano”, describing both the local Grana and Bagoss, a gastronomic marvel originating from Bagolino and produced in the mountain pastures of the Val Caffaro/Val Sabbia on the Brescia mountains. With a fragrant but not strong flavour, the cheese has become rare, the prerogative of a few connoisseurs. From November to June, it is made in the valley floors, but the best cheese to taste comes from milk from the alpine pastures between June and September.
• “Grana Piacentino”, another historic type, is probably the most emblematic and noble Italian Grana cheese.
• “Grana Trentino” is a sub-denomination distinguishing mountain Grana cheeses produced in the Val di Non since 1926 by the Mantova school of cheese makers.
Today’s Grana Padano
The name comes from the Italian word grana (“grain”), which refers to the distinctively grainy texture of the cheese, and the adjective Padano, which refers to the valley Pianura Padana. It is called “Grana Padano” and not “Grana Padana” because the Italian word grana is a masculine noun, il grana, describing this specific cheese, and not the feminine nounla grana, which means “grain”.
Grana Padano is one of the world’s first hard cheeses, created nearly 900 years ago by the Cistercian monks of Chiaravalle Abbey, founded in 1135 near Lodi. By the year 1477, it was regarded as one of the most famous cheeses of Italy. It can last a long time without spoiling, sometimes aging up to two years. Today It is made in a similar way to the Parmigiano Reggiano of Emilia-Romagna but over a much wider area and with different regulations and controls.
Like Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano is a semi-fat hard cheese which is cooked and ripened slowly for at least nine months. If it passes quality tests, it is fire-branded with the Grana Padano trademark. The cows are milked twice a day, the milk is left to stand, and then partially skimmed. Milk produced in the evening is skimmed to remove the surface layer of cream and mixed with fresh milk produced in the morning. The partly skimmed milk is transferred into copper kettles and coagulated; the resulting curd is cut to produce granules with the size of rice grains, which gives the cheese its characteristic texture, and then warmed to 53–56 °C (127–133 °F). It is produced year-round and the quality can vary seasonally as well as by year. Though similar to Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, the younger Grana Padano cheeses are less crumbly, milder and less complex in flavor than their better known, longer-aged relative.
A wheel of Grana Padano is cylindrical, with slightly convex or almost straight sides and flat faces. It measures 35 to 45 cm (14 to 18 in) in diameter, and 15 to 18 cm (5.9 to 7.1 in) in height. It weighs 24 to 40 kg (53 to 88 lbs) per wheel. The rind, which is thin, is pale yellow.
Grana Padano is sold in three different ripening stages:
- “Grana Padano” (9 to 16 months): texture still creamy, only slightly grainy
- “Grana Padano oltre 16 mesi” (over 16 months): crumblier texture, more pronounced taste
- “Grana Padano Riserva” (over 20 months): grainy, crumbly and full flavoured
Grana padano cheese typically contains cheese crystals, semi-solid to gritty crystalline spots that at least partially consist of the amino acid tyrosine.