Grana Padano & Parmigiano Reggiano: How Old is that Wedge You're Buying?
Cosa Bolle in Pentola:
Moving in a different direction, as I said last time, the sample lessons from Slowfood's Master of Food program were among the more interesting events at the Salone del Gusto in Torino. One, in particular, featured a vertical of Grana Padano, with 10, 18, 24 and 36-month old samples, and pointers on how to tell if the wedge of Grana (or Parmigiano) your cheesemonger is offering you really is as old as he says it is, and therefore worth the extra cost.
Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano share a common origin: the monks who reclaimed the marshlands of the Pianura Padana kept herds of cattle that grazed the fertile meadows and produced an abundance of milk; they used what they needed, and transformed the remainder into a hard cheese that aged very well for times of need. Time was that it was all called Grana, after the cheese's fine grainy texture, though at some point the most of the people in the provinces of Emilia Romagna split off from the main body of Grana production, so to speak, calling their cheese Parmigiano Reggiano.
Though the production techniques are similar, there are a couple of important differences. Both are made by combining the evening and morning milkings in brass vats; in Grana Padano both batches of milk are skimmed, whereas in Parmigiano only one is. This makes Grana Padano a little less fatty than Parmigiano Reggiano, which in turn means that Grana Padano matures at a slightly faster rate than Parmigiano. In any case, once the milk batches are combined they're heated to 33 C (about 88 F), the rennet is added, and the curds are broken up to the size of a grain of rice. The curds are gathered into a mold (for want of a better term) that gives the cheese its classic squat barrel shape, warmed to drive out some of the water, marked with the cheesemaker's marks, salted, dried and aged, with repeated inspections along the way. In the end, it takes more than 1100 liters to make a 75-kilo form of cheese (15 liters of milk per kilo of cheese); Grana Padano can be marketed at 9 months, though most producers hold it for 16 or more, whereas Parmigiano can be marketed at 12 months, though most producers have held it for 24 or more to date, and we'll have more on this below.
The other differences? Forage; the cows whose milk produces Parmigiano Reggiano graze the local meadows or eat hay gathered in said meadows, whereas the cows whose milk yields Grana Padano graze different meadows with different mixtures of grasses, and can also be given corn stalks -- it's not a requirement, but some of the farms in the lowlands use them, whereas the highland Grana producers tend to stick to grass and hay. Cheese from cows that are fed the corn stalks tends to be whiter and taste milkier, whereas the cheese from hay-fed animals is yellower and has hay overtones. Both Grana and Parmigiano made in the summer, when the cattle graze fresh grass, tend to be richer than those derived from winter hay. The final difference is that Grana Padano producers are allowed to use a substance called Orisozina (in Italian) that inhibits the activity of the spoors that can come from the cornstalks. Producers who don't use corn tend not to use it, and we were told that it occurs naturally in a number of foods, including eggs.
Having said all this, what were the cheeses like?
- The 18-month cheese was pale yellow, firmer, sharper, and distinctly grainier; it was also richer flavored and more complex, with some nutty overtones, and looking at it carefully there were white dots that are about a mm in diameter: these are calcite crystals that begin to form when the cheese is about 15 months old, we were told. Excellent for grating, and good for shredding.
- The 24-month cheese was a deeper yellow than the 18 month sample, and had, in addition to the calcite crystals, yellow balls about 2 mm in diameter; these are accumulations of amino acids that form as a result of the enzymes left by the lactobateria breaking up the milk proteins; they add to the grainy texture (which is more apparent than in the younger cheeses), and also add pleasing bitter complexities, as well as a sensation of saltiness. Excellent for grating, and to enjoy by the chunk.
- The 36-month cheese was straw yellow, richer, and grainier; the number of tirosina and calcite accumulations was greater, and the cheese's original grain was more evident, while the flavor was more charged. It was grateable, but much better suited to being enjoyed by the chunk, with good bread (and a drop of aceto balsamico) or perhaps a pear.
So which should you buy, Grana or Parmigiano? At present Parmigiano enjoys a better reputation, though, to be honest, I'm not sure how deserved it is: Many people consider Grana Padano to be more industrial, but there are industrial Parmigiano Reggiano producers too; if you instead seek out artisanal cheeses made up in the mountains with the milk of meadow-fed cattle, the differences are going to be more stylistic than qualitative.
And this brings us to the new development in Parmigiano Reggiano production; as I noted above, most Parmigiano producers now hold their cheeses for 24 months before releasing them (the production date for both Parmigiano and Grana is stamped on the rind below the cheeser's mark, which means that you will know how old the cheese is if your cheese merchant splits his forms into wedges by hand, or if you find a wedge with the date on it at your supermarket). Most, but not all -- the minimum aging is a year -- and to help consumers make their selection the Consorzio del Parmigiano-Reggiano has introduced a new grade of cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano Prima Stagionatura, which is to be applied to cheeses that are good enough to be Parmigiano but are not suitable for long aging. To distinguish Parmigiano Reggiano Prima Stagionatura from Parmigiano Reggiano, which must now age 24 months or more, the rinds of the younger cheeses will be incised with closely spaced horizontal groves that give them a distinctly banded appearance.
On the face of it this is a victory for consumers, because it will keep unscrupulous merchants from passing off younger cheeses as glorious long-aged Parmigiano Reggiano. In actuality I think it's a defeat, because it gives the big industrial producers who had been keeping their inventory in their aging halls the opportunity to declassify quite a bit of it and slip it on out the door; many producers may find it economically more interesting to shift their emphasis to the younger, less interesting (from a gastronomic standpoint) prima stagionatura cheeses. In other words, rather than favor the production of the best, long-aged Parmigiano, the new Prima Stagionatura class will allow Parmigiano producers to compete more effectively against certain categories of Grana Padana. It's like introducing a provision that favors the production of Langhe DOC over Barolo.
The other change in Parmigiano rind markings, and this I approve of, regards cheeses that fail the inspections: In the past these cheeses were inscribed with diagonal crosshatches that crosscut the words Parmigiano Reggiano on the rind. Now, all markings will be stripped from cheeses that fail inspection, and this will make them much easier to spot.