The Italian Shopping Basket

Fact file
Grana Padano
Status: DOP
Region: Mostly within Emilia Romagna but also parts of Lombardy, Piedmont and the Veneto
Food type: Cheese
Cost: €€

Grana Padano is a hard, long-keeping cheese made in the regions of Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna and the Veneto. It received EU DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status in 1996. It is one of the world’s oldest cheeses with a history that 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.

The methods used in the production of Grana Padano haven’t changed much over the 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. Grana Piacentino, made in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains is going to taste very different from Grana Piacentino made along the banks of the River Po. It’s a question of territory. 

There has been a long history of rivalry between Grana Padano and its closest neighbour, Grana Parmigiano, commonly known as Parmigiano Reggiano – or just ‘parmesan’. The fact of the matter is that the two cheeses have more in common than they do that sets them apart. The production method is similar. They look the same - large round wheels, typically weighing between 25 and 45 kilos in weight, yellowed and with an inscription indented around the sides. They are both used in the Italian kitchen in very much the same way and as far as taste is concerned, one can be hard pushed to tell the difference between the two cheeses – although they do exist. Which is better is simply a question of taste.
Kitchen Essentials
Grana is without doubt one of the ultimate Italian store cupboard ingredients. Italians cook with it daily; they use it in risottos or minestrone or freshly grated and sprinkled last-minute over a bowl of steaming pasta; they use it as a stuffing for pasta or as a component in the stuffing for meats; they break it into generous bite-sized chunks and eat it together with bread and a glass of wine as a snack or, better still, to end a meal. For the majority of Italians, a day seldom passes when they won’t use or eat a little Grana – whether its Padano or Parmesan. So, to claim that it is “fundamental” to the national cuisine is not so much a boast, as a simple statement of fact.

Shopper’s tip: Grana can be bought at various stages of maturity, between 12 months, 24 months, even 36 months. The price ranges, the least expensive being the younger cheeses. It is cheapest to buy it in the area of production and direct from the producer. Most producers sell direct to the public. It is best to buy it in kilo wedges and get it vacuum packed (known as sotto vuoto). Packed this way, it will keep fresh at the bottom of the fridge for up to a year. Never freeze your Grana – it becomes very crumbly when you do so. Never buy packets of pre-grated Grana – as the cheese looses its fragrance once grated. If you are not in Italy, buy it over the deli counter. Once you open the pack, wrap the cheese in greaseproof paper and store in the fridge. If any small dots of mould should form on the cheese, simply scrape them off with the back of a knife.

Fact file
Fungo di Borgotaro (Borgotaro mushroom)
Status: IGP (PGI in English)
Region: Parts of the Communes of Parma and Massa Carrara
Food type: Mushroom
Cost: €€

The porcino mushroom from the Boletus group (also known as cep or penny bunny) is Italy’s most loved wild mushroom. The Borgotaro mushroom, the only mushroom to have earned protected status under the EU’s Designated Food Protection Scheme, is widely considered one of the best and is foraged from Apennine forests in parts of the Communes of Borgotaro and Albareto in the province of Parma and Pontremoli in the province of Massa Carrara.

Documented evidence that mushrooms were picked from this area dates back to the mid-17th century. However, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century, with advances in technology, that mushrooms became economically important. As a fresh wild food they have a limited shelf life. This problem was overcome with the development of technology for preserving mushrooms which has since opened new markets.

Kitchen Essentials

Fresh porcini mushrooms can be eaten raw (when at their very freshest), grilled, with pasta, in a risotto, a frittata, in a salad, breaded and fried, preserved in oil or vinegar or, at their very best, simply pan fried in olive oil with parsley and garlic (trifolati). If you are buying fresh porcini mushrooms, they should be firm to the touch, the cap ranging from a pale cappuccino colour to dark brown, depending on the variety of boletus. To determine the freshness of the mushroom, it should have a pleasant odour and the pores under the cap should be a creamy white or yellow colour. A dark greenish colour is a sure sign that the mushroom has aged. The stem should be white and feel solid.

Dried porcini mushrooms are highly versatile and used regularly in the Italian kitchen. They can be used to make a risotto, incorporated into a sauce for pasta or added to a stew or a pot roast to give a wonderful depth of flavour to the joint and used to make a rich gravy. To use dried mushrooms they need to be reconstituted. Simply cover in hot water and leave for about 15 minutes. Spoon the mushrooms carefully out of the water and use as required. However, do not discard the water as it is highly flavourful (but do remember to strain it through a very fine sieve to get rid of any sand and grit).

Shopper’s tip: Fresh porcini mushrooms are available in markets and grocery stores in the early summer and the autumn. Before using fresh mushrooms, clean off any dirt with a soft brush – it’s better, if at all possible, not to wash them. If you have to, use a soft damp cloth to remove any stubborn pieces of forest matter. Dried porcini mushrooms are available from supermarkets, specialist grocery stores and markets all year round. They can seem quite expensive, although just a few do go a long way. Once you’ve opened a pack of dried mushrooms, store in an airtight jar – in this way, they’ll keep perfectly for months.  

A shopper’s tale: Several months back I was in a high street supermarket (I won’t name names) in London when my wife drew my attention to… well something. I say ‘something’, because at first I honestly didn’t know what it was. After a moment’s inspection, it turned out that what she had in her hand, supposedly, was a packet of dried porcini mushrooms. Least, that’s what it said on the label (I should point out that the packet in question was not of Italian origin). Now I’m a passionate mushroom picker and I’ve been picking and drying mushrooms for many years. But I have to say that the contents of the packet looked nothing like any porcini mushrooms I have ever picked. As it turned out, in another aisle in the same supermarket I also came across packets of dried porcini mushrooms from Borgotaro. They were considerably more expensive, but also more recognisable.

My point is this: with some foodstuffs you simply can’t economize. Remember, a few dried mushrooms do go a long way. Just as it’s important to eat mushrooms when they are fresh, it’s not good practice to dry mushrooms that are too long past their best. By looking at dried mushrooms, you can roughly guess how fresh they were (or not) at the point of being dried. The mushrooms on the left, in the picture above, are mushrooms I picked in Borgotaro last year and dried myself. These are what dried porcini mushrooms should look like. The mushrooms to the right are the contents of ‘said’ packet of dried porcini mushrooms from the supermarket. I have no doubt that they are porcini mushrooms but I’m not giving away any prizes for spotting the difference?

Fact file
White asparagus of Bassano (Asparago bianco di Bassano)
Status: DOP
Region: Veneto
Food type: Vegetable
Cost: €

Asparagus (asparago, Asparagus officinalis) is one of Italy’s most loved and valued vegetables. It is cultivated throughout the country, especially in the regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Tuscany, Lazio, Veneto and Emilia Romagna. Although each region cultivates its own distinct variety and claims it to be the best, the white asparagus of Bassano in the Veneto has achieved something of a national following. Being only very slightly fibrous, the stalks can be used almost in their entirety. The asparagus has a delicate aroma, but is most distinguishable by its creamy texture and slightly nutty taste. The chunky pale stalks, which can be tinged slightly pink at the base, obtain their distinctive look because the asparagus remains covered in earth and therefore shaded from the light.

Local legend has it that this method of production was discovered by accident. It’s claimed that some time during the sixteenth century a violent hailstorm destroyed the upper part of one farmer’s crop. In an effort to salvage something, the farmer dug up the roots which remained white.  As it turned out, they tasted so good that from that point onwards the farmer harvested his crop before the asparagus sprouted from the earth. Whether or not there is any veracity in this tale remains uncertain. However, there are numerous existing documentary sources which show that white asparagus has been cultivated in the area since at least the mid sixteenth century. Records of banquets in the Republic of Venice held in honor of the nobility and accounts from church dignitaries travelling through the area on their way to the Council of Trento (1545-63), testify to the qualities of Bassano’s white asparagus.

Kitchen Essentials

The repertoire of dishes for asparagus in Italy is staggering. It’s eaten raw, grilled, fried, with pasta, in risotto with rice, in a salad or, at its very best, simply boiled and dressed with a little lemon juice and a healthy drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. White Bassano asparagus can generally be used in the same way as ordinary green asparagus. However, most Italians prefer to treat it as simply as possible, allowing its distinctive flavour to stand out. Also always popular in Italy in the spring and early summer is wild asparagus which looks like wild hops and works especially well in a risotto or sautéed in butter and added to a frittata.

Shopper’s tip: The white asparagus of Bassano is harvested and available in markets and grocery stores from the beginning of March through to early June. It is creamy in texture and distinguished by a most pleasant, slightly nutty flavour. Genuine Bassano white asparagus will be clearly labeled with an EU DOP sticker. The Veneto region also produces another variety of white asparagus. The asparagus of Cimadolmo IGP (asparago bianco di Cimaldomo) is grown in the province of Treviso, Veneto, and available from early March to May. It is also excellent and like that from Bassano, is only very slightly fibrous. 


  1. I don't believe I've ever tried white asparagus. One to add to the shopping basket perhaps. When buying vegetables here I do try and go for the ones in the alimentari (when we are not growing the vegetable in question ourselves). The produce is better.

  2. Local, local, local... always best. The Bassano is the most famed variety of white asparagus but it is grown in other parts of the country. Look out for it. If you love asparagus, I guarantee you'll be in for a treat!

  3. I will look out for it. Mario, yesterday whilst making the pasta, I asked my neighbour (she's Tuscan) if she had ever heard of white asparagus. The answer was no she hadn't.
    You make a good point (in your porcini post), with certain foodstuffs there is no cutting corners. I'm no expert at all, but I don't think I would have bought those charcoal looking mushrooms. One of my favourite risottos is mushrooms with some porcini in there.

  4. If you ever see the white asparagus Cathy, give it a try. It's absolutely delicious. Plus my children love it as it's much less fibrous than green asparagus, which often puts them off. And yes, risotto with porcini is hard to beat - when mushroom season gets going, try making it some time with a mix of fresh and dried mushrooms.