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From Parmigiano-Reggiano to Grana Padano

Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Grana Padano cheese

This is from a university report I wrote after field trips covering these two cheeses…


Having studied the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano while on the Emilia Romagna regional stage closely followed by a whole week’s specialised study of Grana Padano for the cheese stage, I decided that a report comparing these two great cheeses would be valuable.

The historical origin of both cheeses is similar in that hard “grana” cheeses very similar to what we know today have been produced in this area for hundreds of years. Parma and Reggio Emilia were the centres for the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano with records of a similar cheese appearing as early as the 13-14th centuries. Both Lodi and Codogno claim to be birthplace of Grana Padano[1]. The exact specifications and regulations for the cheeses was not made official until the creation of the consortia for Parmigiano-Reggiano in 1934 and Grana Padano in 1954. Parmigiano-Reggiano was granted DOP (Protected Designations of Origin) status in 1992 [2] and Grana Padano followed in 1996 [3].

Similarities and Differences

Firstly, Parmigiano-Reggiano has a smaller geographical origin, limited only to the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, the right bank of the Po in the province of Mantova, and the left side of the river Reno in the province of Bologna. The Grana Padano production area does not overlap that of Parmigiano-Reggiano and is larger, incorporating the province of Piacenza in Emilia Romagna, much of Lombardia and Veneto, and parts of Piemonte and Trentino-Alto Adige.

Parmigiano-Reggiano regulations have more restrictions on the diet of the cows producing the milk for the cheese – they have to be fed fresh or dried grass or other vegetable matter (like alfalfa, grains etc) where Grana Padano allows the use of silage (fermented vegetable matter) in the feed. This translates to higher costs for Parmigiano-Reggiano milk compared to that for Grana Padano – at the time of our visit in Spring 2006 we were quoted a price of €0.34 per litre for Grana Padano milk compared to around €0.40 for Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The inclusion of fermented feed in the diet of the Grana Padano cows increases the risk of late blowing of the cheese due to the higher risk of clostridium bacteria being present in the milk. The Grana Padano production counters this with the addition of an extract of egg-white which has anti-bacterial properties. Due to the prohibition of fermented feeds, Parmigiano-Reggiano is made without the need for additives.

Production Process

Both cheeses are made with raw ie unpasteurised milk, but the milk is treated slightly differently between the two cheeses. Parmigiano-Reggiano is made only once per day, in the morning. Milk from the afternoon milking of cows is left in shallow open tanks so that the cream naturally separates. The cream is removed and used for butter or other products and the partially skimmed milk is mixed with whole milk from the morning milking. Grana Padano is usually made twice per day. Milk arriving at the dairy is semi skimmed either with traditional shallow separation tanks or with more modern industrial systems.

The cheese making process is then fairly similar, the milk (around 1,100L) is pumped into a copper cauldron along with a starter whey culture saved from the previous day’s cheese-making. This is then heated, while constantly moving the contents to around 33°C. Calf rennet is then added (around 20-40g per cauldron) and the milk is left to curdle which takes around 10-15 minutes. The curd is then broken up either manually using a large whisk-like tool on a long shaft or using a mechanised cutting/mixing attachment. The curd pieces need to be about the size of rice grains. The cooking process then begins with the increase of temperature to around 55°C with constant stirring. The cheese maker constantly checks the curds by hand during the cooking as the optimal consistency can quickly be passed. When the correct consistency is reached the heating and stirring is stopped and the mixture is left for somewhere between 30 and 70 minutes to allow the curd to settle and coagulate at the bottom of the cauldron.

The curd mass is then lifted from the bottom of the tank and captured in a cloth. The curd is cut into two pieces and one piece is transferred to a separate cloth. Both curds are lifted out in their cloths and placed in round Teflon moulds (in Grana Padano cheese-making the curd is first briefly placed in an acidified water solution). Casein disks with detailed production data for that cheese is stuck on top of each curd/cheese. The whey left in the cauldron is pumped out and can be used for making ricotta and for animal feed.

The cheeses are left like this with heavy Teflon lids on top for 2 days during which time any excess whey drains and the cheese becomes harder. For the second of these 2 days the cheese cloth is removed and the Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano stencil (a Teflon sheet that imprints the cheese name and some production data around the cheese) is placed around the cheese within the mould. After this the cheese is transferred for a further 24 hours to a metal mould which has concave sides which gives the cheese its rounded sides.

The cheeses are then transferred to brining tanks for 1 day per 2kg of weight (although the time depends on the exact salinity used) which translates to around 20-25 days usually. During this time the cheeses can absorb something like 1kg of salt each and lose 7-10kg of weight due to osmotic water loss.

After brining, the cheeses are transferred to a warm room for a day before being transferred to the ageing rooms where they spend at least 9 months for Grana Padano and 12 months for Parmigiano Reggiano.

Maturing and Certification

The ageing rooms have controlled humidity and a temperature of around 18-20°C. The cheeses are stored on wooden shelves and are cleaned with brushes and turned every 1-2 weeks, more often in the first few months. During the ageing the cheeses turn from a white/cream colour to a golden, brown or olive colour. At a month or two before the minimum ageing time for the cheeses, the consortia organise an inspection of the cheeses to check for conformation to their respective standards. Apart from a visual inspection for deformities, the main tool is a small hammer which is used to tap the cheese and the tester listens for tell-tale sounds indicating faults or holes within the cheese. Grana Padano testing may also use a needle to allow checking of the cheese scent with minimal disturbing of the cheese. If there are unresolved questions, a narrow cylindrical core can be taken from the cheese for inspection. In extreme cases the cheese can be split open to check. If the cheese passes these inspections it is branded with the consortium mark, certifying it as the DOP product. Cheeses that fail the test have the consortium branding crossed out or removed and can not be sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano/Grana Padano but can be sold as generic hard cheese or used in industrial food processes. Around 4% of cheeses fail the tests and are not certified.

Grana Padano tends to be consumed younger. It has a minimum aging of 9 months compared to 12 months for Parmigiano-Reggiano and is generally not aged beyond 24 months. 24 months ageing is considered an optimal time for Parmigiano-Reggiano, with longer ageing possible. Parmigiano-Reggiano generally has a deeper colour and a stronger flavour compared to Grana Padano.

Sales and Market

Grana Padano had 48% of the hard cheese market in Italy at the time of our visit and Parmigiano-Reggiano 42%. However, Grana Padano’s share had been shrinking and Parmigiano-Reggiano’s increasing. With the bulk of their market in Italy but with a shrinking demand and high price sensitivity, both consortia have been eager to exploit foreign markets. Exports, however are still a relatively small percentage of total production (around 50,000 tons[4] for Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano combined compared to a total production of more than 200,000 tons in 2005). The export market has been growing and is very valuable as small increases in consumption rates in foreign countries can equate to large increases in exports. Also, these markets treat the cheeses as more of a premium product than the Italian market, and are therefore willing to pay extra for the longer-aged cheeses. The cheese ageing process is very costly for producers (around €0.07 per kg per month) and this is difficult to adequately recoup in the Italian market. This is unfortunate considering the organoleptic advantages that can be realised through longer ageing.

Both consortia have strict labelling rules and programmes to guard against fraudulent practices and problems now mostly occur outside Italy. Parmigiano-Reggiano especially, has had a long campaign to try to prevent use of their name and derivatives such as “Parmesan” on foreign products. This has often been difficult to enforce due to differences in trade laws and agreements between different countries. For instance, generic, home-produced “Parmesan” cheese can be sold in the US but is forbidden in the EU. Special care is taken in the control of the production of ready-grated packs of cheese as, without the branding on the rind of the cheese, substitution would be much easier. With this type of product, producers need to be specially licensed by the consortia and face large fines for irregularities. Grated cheese can be identified as genuine if necessary by analysing the amino acid profiles and confirming the lack of additives.

The consortia have, up until now mostly concentrated on creating demand for a generic Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano product, with more recent differentiation in ageing variants. This has obviously worked well in many respects but it does not leave much room for producers to be involved with differentiating themselves and adding value (both to the consumer and to their operations). Parmigiano-Reggiano is now looking to shift some of its marketing focus to better allow promotion of individual cheese producers, their differences and artisanality. This also fits better with the Slow Food philosophy of diversity rather than homogenisation.

I have photographic sequences of the production of both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano that I took while visiting dairies…
Grana Padano

All information for this report apart from the references below came from first hand experience and information given at the following locations…
Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, Reggio Emilia
Consorzio per la tutela del Formaggio Grana Padano, Desenzano del Garda (BS)
Caseificio Nuova Fontana, Fontana di Rubiera (RE)
Caseificio PLAC, Persico Dosimo (CR)
Caseificio Europeo, Bagnolo San Vito (MN)
1.Italian Cheese, Slow Food Editore, Page 130
2.Italian Cheese, Slow Food Editore, Page 130
3.Italian Cheese, Slow Food Editore, Page 93
4.Parmigiano-Reggiano Press kit, Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano, Page 21


6 Responses

  1. Henry, just found this great article of yours via a forum member at CheeseForum.org and have just posted links to it and your pictures in the Grana Type Cheese Making Board as it will be of much interest to our members.

    Thank you for taking the time and effort for such a great report, John & fellow Cheese Makers.

  2. I agree great info and photos on the site. I have a couple of questions, just in case you may have the answers or know where to find them.
    1. What is the consistency of the brining solution? I assume it is just water and salt. But how much salt per unit of water?

    2. How long do the cheesemakers take to reach the 55C temperature? This is the step after coagulation and curd break up.

    Huge thanks in advance.

    • Thanks for your interest and questions Rudy.

      I believe that the brine solution is saturated. More salt has to be added to the tanks to compensate for the salt being absorbed by the cheeses and the moisture that is being lost from them.

      I don’t remember exactly how long the heating takes but the copper cauldrons have a steam inner which allows rapid heating of the contents. The cheesemaker is present for the whole heating, monitoring the temperature and checking the consistency of the curds by hand. I would guess that it takes about 5 minutes.

  3. Thank You Henry for your response. If you somehow manage to get more details on the production of this cheese, I know I’d love to hear/read about them.

    Have a great day.

  4. Dear Rudy,
    I am trying to import about 5,000 lbs of Grana Padano. I understand that there are a few tunnel owners, who buy Grana from small manufacturers and then age these in thier captive tunnels. I did correspond with one such manufacturer and his prices were also good. But unfortunately lost his contact.eee
    Wonder if you could suggect some directory of such tunnel owners ?

  5. […] From Parmigiano-Reggiano to Grana Padano […]

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