Chef Francesco Mazzei shows Jo why he loves this hard cheese so much
“When we were kids we tended to have only cheap cheese. There were five of us so there was no extra money,” laughs Francesco Mazzei. “But sometimes Mamma would buy ‘Grana’ – it was less expensive than Parmesan at that time and it became special for me. “
“She’d make macaroni with tomato sauce and use Grana Padano instead of pecorino. We’d have it on Sundays and use every bit of the cheese, even the rinds, which would be melted and used in minestrone. (In fact, if you put them in the microwave for a couple of minutes on high they become really crispy.)”
Grana Padano has a rich history. The cow’s milk cheese was first made in 1135AD by Benedictine monks to preserve milk. Its production has changed little in over a thousand years.
The milk has to come from a specific consorzio of farms from five regions in the north of the Po river valley (Pianura Padana, Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Trento and a few in the Emilia Romagna region).
Only cheese made from this milk is allowed to be branded with the Grana Padano DOP stamp.
After heating in traditional copper vats, whey and rennet are added. The ‘casaro’ (cheesemaker) checks at which point the curds can be broken with a giant whisk, called a spino.
Then it’s cheese time. The wheels are placed in muslin cloth, and placed in moulds to form the shape of the wheel. After turning them a few times over several days, the wheels are placed in brine for 14-30 days, then dried and placed in the ageing warehouses.
Here they are brushed and turned every 15 days. After nine months of ageing, they undergo quality testing. If approved, they are firebranded and can only then be called ‘Grana Padano’
As the cheese matures, it develops a great aroma. Each cheese vault will contain around 2000 huge wheels of cheese.
Every wheel is carefully tapped with what looks like a gavel – testing for consistency of texture. Cheese that doesn’t pass these tests is etched and sold as generic hard cheese.
Look out for it in supermarkets. Grana Padano is available in three varieties: Grana Padano aged 9-16 months, Grana Padano aged over 16 months, and Grana Padano Riserva, which is aged over 20 months (Riserva may be harder to find in UK supermarkets but should be available in specialist Italian delis – it’s definitely worth seeking out for its incomparable flavour.)
Not surprisingly, the young 9-16 month old cheese tasted fresher and lighter – ideal with nuts, olives and drinks or in a fondue.
Francesco suggested the over 16 month old cheese is good for general cooking such as sauces, but the Riserva is best for matching with salami, nduja and prosciutto for a fantastic antipasti spread. It’s true that this aged cheese has much more depth of flavour and the nutty, buttery flavour and that wonderful graininess for which Grana Padano is known.
We were then treated to a demo of fresh pasta “straccia”, like a thin lasagne. We added sautéed mushrooms, mozzarella cheese and béchamel to each pasta layer, finishing off with a liberal sprinkle of Grana Padano.
Around 30 minutes later the pasta “straccia” emerged from the oven, to be devoured.
Of course, the cheese is also fantastic with pasta, and Francesco quickly demonstrated an easy dish that is quick to make at home.
He used fresh pasta, deftly cutting it into tagliolini strips, but of course could just as easily be fettucine, pappardelle etc by cutting the strips wider.
Once cooked in boiling, salted water the pasta was drained then mixed with crushed pink peppercorns, butter, lemon zest (and a little juice if you like) and plenty of grated Grana Padano.
Proof, if proof were needed, that good home cooking really doesn’t have to be hard.