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Grana Padano

 How would you like to be in a temperature-controlled room, surrounded by $190 million worth of grana padano cheese? It was the final stop in a visit I made recently to Caseificio Santa Vittoria near the town of Carpaneto, in the region of Emilia Romagna, where most of my Italian relatives live. Before we get to that final stop however, I’ll take you through the steps used in making this glorious cheese.
Every day at this caseificio, about 116 thousand pounds of milk are collected and placed in large stainless steel tanks, where most of the cream is separated out and made into butter. The partially skimmed milk is placed in large copper pots, where natural whey, derived from the previous day’s cheese-making process, is added. This natural culture of lactic bacteria augments the acidity, helping to solidify the milk into cheese. The milk is then heated to about 87 degrees fahrenheit, and rennet, derived from cows’ stomachs, is added for coagulation. The milk starts to become more gelatinous and curds are broken up in the cauldron. It’s then cooked at a higher temperature of between 127 degrees and 132 degrees fahrenheit.
The curdled milk from each of the copper vats is then placed into plastic pots that are lined with linen cloth. The liquid part, or the whey, stays behind and some of it is used for fermatation of the following day’s milk. The whey is also what’s used to later make ricotta, a word that means “recooked.” Each copper vat holds enough curdled milk to fill two of the plastic forms.
A day later, the cheese has firmed enough to be put into round stainless steel forms. This will give the cheese its distinctive shape, during the three days when it’s kept at a low temperature to solidify.
Giuseppe Rizzi, who manages the caseificio and who was kind enough to give us a tour, explained that each wheel is stamped with a teflon form that indicates its identity – the date and where it was made.
The wheels travel along an assembly line where a worker removes the stainless steel lining and stamps the cheese, both with the teflon imprint, and with another imprint on top.
They keep moving on the belt until they are pushed into a vat of salted water.
They remain in the saline solution for about twenty-three days, a process that helps form what will become the hard, outer rind.
The wheels of cheese are cleaned with plain water to get rid of any excess salt and left to age on shelves for at least nine months, and as long as 30 months.
Every 10 days, a machine rotates the wheels of cheese and cleans them with a brush to keep mold from forming on the outside. As they age, they’re cleaned less often.
The wheel below was made in March 2010. The PC on the side refers to the province of Piacenza and the number 507 to the Caseificio Santa Vittoria. These cheeses are considered D.O.P., or “Dominazione Origine Protetta.” That’s a guarantee by the European Union that the cheese has been made using rigid standards and is worthy enough to receive the fire branding mark of “grana padano.”

 

Each of these shelves holds 1,180 forms of cheese, and the entire caseificio contains 45,000 wheels of cheese. My son Michael, as well as me and my cousin Lucia, were trying to figure out a way to take one home, but maybe I should have planned better and brought a larger purse.
Grana Padano tastes a lot like parmigiano reggiano, but there is a difference in both how it tastes and how it’s made. You can find out more about parmigiano reggiano by clicking on a post I wrote about it a couple of years ago here. For Grana Padano, cows are permitted a broader range of food and are raised in an area that’s twice the size of the area where parmigiano is made. Padano refers to the Po Valley, and as seen in the map below, the cheese is made in Lombardia and some parts of Emilia-Romagna, but also in Piedmont and the Veneto. Parmigiano, however, is strictly confined to the four provinces in the region of Emilia Romagna: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna.
Grana Padano is less salty and less complex than parmigiano reggiano, but it’s also less expensive. Both are delicious, but parmigiano has that nutty crunch of crystals between my teeth that I love. Some people buy the less expensive grana padano to grate, but it’s also wonderful as a table cheese. At the caseificio, a kilo (2.2 pounds) of grana padano that’s aged 20 months costs about $16.00, or a little more than $8 a pound, considerably less than here in the states.
Stay tuned for my next post when you get to see how my cousin put this wonderful cheese to work in a typical Piacentine dish called “Pisarei e faso.”

A Tuscan Treat

If you envision rolling fields of verdant vineyards, ancient olive groves and regal cypress trees when you think of Tuscany, you’re not the only one. It’s a picturesque region of Italy that’s long been discovered by tourists, and for good reason. Scenes like the one above mesmerized me on my recent trip, requiring a stop at nearly every bend in the road to snap photos. Grab a Vespa and come along for a short hop through one of Italy’s most beautiful regions.

It’s a region that continues to inspire painters, like this one working in Castellina in Chianti.

 

 

 Its beautiful towns and stone buildings make an impressive backdrop for wedding photos.

 

 

But the countryside is what’s most captivating. You’ll pass plenty of scenic vineyards on your drive and will want to drop in on at least a few.

My son and I stopped at I Selvatici winery and tasted a sampling of wines courtesy of owner Giuseppe Sala. You don’t even have to travel to Tuscany to taste his fabulous wines. He and his partner Barbara Singer travel to the U.S. each year with a personal chef and arrange wine tastings and gourmet dinners in your own home for you and a group of guests. They’ll even ship your order to the U.S., but I also managed to find room in my luggage for a bottle of his flavorful vin santo.

 

Barbara recommended we stay nearby at Borgo di Fontebussi, a hotel made up of an enchanting collection of buildings and gardens in the countryside with magnificent vistas.

 

She also suggested we eat dinner at Malborghetto, a restaurant near Gaiole in Chianti, where the gnocchi was served in a parmesan cheese bowl, smothered in shaved truffles. It was almost too beautiful too eat – but I perservered.

 



Naturally, back at home, I had to try making the parmesan cheese bowl in my kitchen, even if I didn’t have any fresh truffles. It’s easier than you think, although it might take a couple of tries until you get the hang of it. Just start out with about 1/3 cup to 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese (depends on the size of your pan) and sprinkle it in a small non-stick pan that’s been slightly heated.

Keep cooking the cheese over moderate heat. Don’t touch anything. In a few minutes you’ll see the cheese start to melt. Be patient.
When the edges look like they’re starting to brown, take a heat-proof spatula and lift the edges all around.

 

Carefully pick it up and lay it over a small bowl. No need to grease the bowl because the cheese contains enough fat. Do this quickly because it starts to harden as soon as it comes off the heat.

 

 

Wait a few minutes while it hardens, then you’ll be able to invert it.

 

And if truffles are not in your future, you can always use the parmesan cheese bowl to serve a much-easier-on-the-pocketbook herb risotto.

Parmigiano Reggiano

If you put me on a desert isle and told me I could eat only one cheese for the rest of my life, (The cheese fairies would deliver it, in case you’re wondering) the answer would be a no-brainer: parmigiano reggiano.

I never get tired of the intense flavor, the little crunchy grains of an aged parmigiano between your teeth and the versatility that it offers. You can enjoy a chunk of parmigiano alongside a glass of wine; you can grate it over pasta or vegetables; you can melt it into casseroles or other dishes; you can add the rind to soup to lend more flavor, etc., etc., etc.

In short, it’s not called “The King of Cheeses” for nothing. On our recent trip to Italy, we were tootling along in the car one day, hoping to see a few castles in the countryside between Piacenza and Parma. Unfortunately it was a Monday, a day when castles and museums are closed. But lucky for us, I spotted the following building along a road near the town of Soragna:

“Make a U-turn. Quick,” I said to my husband. So he did – and we made a beeline back to the Caseificio Sociale Pongennaro, one of the approximately 450 dairies where the king of cheeses is made. And I do mean made. The consortium of parmigiano makers has adopted a slogan of “Non si fabbrica, si fa,” meaning that “Parmigiano is not manufactured, it’s made,” and this implies the use of time-honored methods and no preservatives or additives.

It can only be called parmigiano reggiano if the cows are raised and the cheese is made in any of four provinces in the region of Emilia Romagna: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna.
If you’re eating Grana Padano, its sister-cheese, you’re also eating a delicious cheese but one made under entirely different standards and from cows that are permitted a broader range of food and that are raised in an area that’s twice the size of the area where parmigiano is made.

For a cheese to be called parmigiano reggiano, the cows are permitted to eat forage, mainly hay, grown only in the designated region and the forage must not have been treated with additives nor heated by fermentation. The cows are not allowed to eat any animal by-products or food of animal origin.

Cheese made according to the long list of rules is branded with a variety of marks including the acronym D.O.P. which stands for the Protected Designation of Origin. The dairy is also identified,as well as the production month and year.
In the photo above, the cheese was made in February 2007, hence it was 24 months old when I took the photo.

The cheese is made every day, year round. By 4 a.m. cheesemakers start boiling the milk in huge copper cauldrons.

Unfortunately, we arrived too late to watch the cheesemakers stirring the mixture and draining the curds from the cauldron into molds, but were able to see the huge rounds of cheese as they sat immersed in large vats of salted water. Cheesemakers at the Caseificio Pongennaro make 36 forms a day, each weighing about 40 kilos, or 88 pounds, according to Mara Marenzoni, the wife of Raffaelo Rainieri, one of the 15 partners of the caseificio.

The large rounds of cheese sit for 20 days in the salted water before the aging begins. “You can’t call it parmigiano if it has less than one year of aging,” Mara said.

The longer the aging, the more complex the taste, although if it has aged much longer than 36 months, the cheese generally takes on a less desirable flavor. The 24-month aged cheese at Caseficio Pongennaro’s shop sells for 10.60 euros a kilo (about $14.00 for 2.2 pounds) while the 36-month aged parmigiano sells for 12.40 euros a kilo (about $16.00 for 2.2 pounds).

Now if you want to bring back a whole round of a 36-month aged parmigiano, it’ll set you back around $645.00. In Italy, it’s not uncommon to find them at weddings or banquets, split in half and served in chunks. However, it might be a little heavy to fit that much into your carry-on luggage. But you can always find room for a kilo or two.

I can leave it to other visitors to Italy to buy the Prada purses, the Armani suits and the Gucci shoes, but I never come back without a supply of Parmigiano cheese. There’s no prohibition against bringing back hard cheeses through U.S. customs and the quality is incomparable, especially if you’ve bought your cheese right at the dairy. The hard part is not eating it all in the first few days of your return. Buon appetito.