It’s one of the most popular cheeses in all of Italy, yet for most Canadians, the name still seems a bit foreign. The irony is you may have had this cheese grated over your pasta at your most recent trip to your favorite Italian restaurant (without even realizing it).
Grana Padano cheese is considered by connoisseurs to be one of the best cheeses in the world. Comparable to Parmesan, this hard cheese gets its name from the Italian word grana, which refers to its distinctively grainy texture. Grana Padano is a semi-fat hard cheese that’s cooked and ripened slowly for a minimum of nine months. The name “Grana Padano” isn’t something that can be thrown around casually, as the cheese must undergo strict tests to be fire-branded with the prestigious Grana Padano trademark.
The cheese is regulated by the Grana Padano Consortium under what the Italian government deems a protected designation of origin. A “PDO” is the name of an area, a specific place as a designation for an agricultural product. The “Grana Padano” brand is an important one to protect because, in Italy and abroad, cheese lovers expect its quality and taste to pass muster.
In an effort to better understand this world-famous cheese, I took a trip to the Alps in the north of Italy to visit the cheese artisans at Monti Trentini. This company has been making some of Italy’s finest cheeses for over 80 years. They are one of 130 producers recognized by the consortium to produce Grana Padano.
As Fiorenzo Finco, CEO of Monti Trentini, cut into a fresh block of Grana Padano Riserva cheese, he instructs me to smell it first. It smells, most surprisingly, like pineapple. “Every batch is a bit different” he says. You can see the passion in his eyes, and as I taste the cheese, I understand why. I am instantly hooked. Grana Padano has done the impossible — turned a casual American into a cheese lover.
Grana Padano begins at the cow. The quality of milk is an overwhelming factor in the quality of the cheese. For Finco and the cheese makers at Monti Trentini, they are incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by some of the happiest cows in all of Italy. Over 80 percent of their milk is collected from small farms in the mountainous Trentino region; it then undergoes a strict inspection process before it is ever used to create the famed Grana Padano.
Large copper cauldrons fill the room, each filled with simmering milk. This process is overseen by a cheesemaker who constantly surveys the batches’ consistency. Once the curds are the right size, a large linen cheesecloth is used to form the cheese into a giant ball. The balls are later put into steel cylinders where they harden into their classic block shapes. Afterward, the cheese is put into salt water baths (yes, it’s very relaxing for the cheese), where it sits for roughly 20 days.
The next step is the aging process, and it is one of the most important stages in the cheesemaking process. Grana Padano cheese must be aged a minimum of 9 months. The Grana Padano reserve, however, is aged for a minimum of 20 months. The consortium comes to check on the cheeses before any are branded with the prestigious DOP logo. The room where the cheese sits is particularly interesting and includes a large electronic machine that automatically turns and cleans the aging cheese daily.
As I nibble on easily the best cheese I have ever tasted, I look out at the stunning Italian mountainside. My biggest dilemma at this moment is not just that I don’t have a view like this back in New York City, but that this quality of cheese will be much more difficult for me to find there. I turn to Finco and he understands my request without much explanation and puts a small wedge of Riserva into a vacuum-sealed bag for me to bring back home. I don’t tell him, however, that the cheese likely won’t make it out of the airport uneaten.