Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cheese with [out] borders: Part 2

Both the people of Parma and Piacenza claim that their grana – cheese – was the original one.  Neither claim has been proven. What is clear is that the history of grana can be traced back at least as far as AD1000. It coincided with a time when monks in the Po Valley created a system of irrigation thereby enabling intensive dairy farming and the production on a large scale of milk for cheese.

Methods of production haven’t changed much in the intervening centuries. The process stems from a method which dates back, some food historians argue, to the time of the Etruscans. A combination of science, artisan intuition and nature all play their part. The milk comes from morning and evening milking, partially skimmed of cream. Natural whey ferments are added and the milk is heated. Rennet is added and coagulation takes place. The curds are then broken manually using a spino – a long, over-sized balloon whisk - and reheated until the right consistency is achieved. They are then allowed to sink into a mass at the bottom of the vat before being manipulated manually using a large muslin draining cloth. The cheese is then placed into the distinctive cylindrical-shaped moulds and the aging process, which can take up to three years, begins.

The principal varieties of grana, defined by their districts of origin, include Grana Bagozzo, Grana Lodigiano, Grana Padano, Grana Piacentino and Grana Parmigiano (which, since 1941, has had its own separate and distinct consortium). Yet, despite the fact that they all fall under the same generic label, coupled with strong similarities in production methods, it’s safe to say that no two grana’s are the same. Indeed, even within individual zones of production, there are marked differences in taste. Parmigiano Reggiano, made in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains above Parma is going to taste very different from Parmigiano Reggiano, made along the banks of the River Po. It’s a question of territory and the same principle holds true for Grana Piacentino. 

As for which grana is best, there is no definitive answer to that question. Taste is subjective. One thing that can be said with certainty though is that for Italians, grana is fundamental. There is no substitute for it and Italian cuisine would not be the same without it. There are few products that carry such weight of importance and when I next turn to this subject, I will explain why.

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