Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cheese with[out] borders

The signs on the bridge tell the whole story. It’s the point at which one province ends, another begins. It’s the story of two provinces, two cheeses. The rivalry between Parma and Piacenza dates back centuries, and it is one that still plays out over cheese. ‘Inizio zona d’origine Parmigiano Reggiano’, in other words, you are now entering Parmigiano reggiano country.  

Less than 500 metres up the road from the bridge, there is a small artisan caseificio (cheese factory). I can see the factory from the border, despite the fact that a fog was beginning to form. I can see it because there’s a sign protruding onto the road – it reads: Parmigiano Reggiano, on offer here. I’m starting to get the message.

Less than 3 kilometres from the bridge, but in the opposite direction, there’s yet another factory, another sign. This time it says ‘grana padano’. Inside the factory they also make cheese, a hard, long-keeping cheese made with partially skimmed cow’s milk from morning and evening milking, just as it’s done a few kilometres down the road in Parma. It smells the same. It’s used in kitchens across the country in very much the same way. It also looks the same. Large round wheels, typically weighing between 25 and 45 kilos in weight, yellowed and with an inscription indented around the sides. What’s more, both cheeses can be bought at various stages of maturity, 12 months, 24 months, even 36 months and there isn’t such a significance difference in cost. Both cheeses are called grana because they take their name from their grainy texture. And finally, both cheeses are considered fundamental to Italian cuisine, not only because they are used daily, but because they contribute in no small way to giving Italian cuisine its distinct character.

Despite the long history of rivalry between the two provinces, indeed because of it, a closer inspection is warranted. What is it that differentiates these two great cheeses? Is it simply a division by name, or is there more to it? I live in grana padano country. Anytime I buy parmigiano reggiano, I feel like a traitor. Why?  Is Italian cuisine so clearly demarcated, so rigidly divided? It occurs to me that where I’m standing is more than just a border. This is a defining geographic position in Italian culinary history, tradition and culture. Over the next few days I’m going to explore the story of grana. I’m going to visit the cheese factories on both sides of the border. I’m going to find out what sets these two cheeses apart. I’m going to find out what sets these two provinces apart and why ancient rivalries just refuse to die. 


  1. Well I look forward to the upcoming posts Mario. In the past we have bought parmesan, but now we tend to buy grana padano - no special reason behind it - just because.

  2. I'm so envious Mario! Having lived in Parma, sono diventato Parmigiani. But, I enjoyed grana many times. I'll be interested in your analysis, and my mouth will be watering.

  3. Thanks Nancy. There's a thin line and I live right next to it! It's a daily conflict - grana or Parma? I'm not going to give the game away just yet, but thanks for listening! Best, M