In the big cheese debate, does it really make a difference?
The answer is, 'dipende.'
Let's dig deeper into these three cheeses.
Firstly, what is Grana Padano?
You've heard of it, seen it in shops, but what is it?
Fondly known as Grana, this aged cheese is similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) and often substituted in dishes requiring a salty, umami edge like lasagne, filled pasta or risotto. But eaten on its own or on a cheeseboard with breads, olives and cured meats, one begins to notice subtle variations between the two in textures and flavours.
Grana has D.O.P - Protected Designation of Origin, in this case, the Padano region. It's made on the flatlands of the Po river in northern Italy, a large expanse of land encompassing Turin, Milan, Venice and Bologna. Around 150 factories produce Grana Padano, making it more affordable and accessible than Parmigiano-Reggiano which has a remarkably smaller geographically protected region south of Grana Padano's larger one. Grana means 'grain' and it's this crumbly, crystalised texture that lends Grana its name.
Grana is aged in three stages:
Grana Padano - 9 to 16 months
Grana Padano oltre 16 mesi - over 16 months
Grana Padano Riserva - over 20 months
After passing quality tests at 9 months, every wheel of Grana is fire-branded with a trademark logo and then sliced with a specialised triangular knife into thick wedges according to varied ageing stages.
No snobbery here, but many chefs consider Parmigiano superior to Grana, in flavour especially. Parmigiano-Reggiano is matured for longer, being tested at 12 months, cows are fed on regional hay or grass and 3,4 million wheels of Parmigiano are produced a year compared to 4,8 million of Grana Padano, making it more elusive and noble.
Parmigiano-Reggiano's name derives from Parma and Reggio Emilia, two important cities within its protected area, other cities include Modena, Bologna and Mantova. The production of this well-known cheese takes up 18% of Italy's total milk quota.
Both cheeses use unpasteurised cows' milk and both mature in texture and flavour with age but Grana remains creamier in its youth somehow. Both end up with crystalised particles, providing their characteristically crunchy texture, especially after18months of ageing. Italians generally tend to prefer Grana grated into dishes and Parmigiano grated on top but no one is particularly fussed. Let's meet our third mature contestant who begins to liven things up a little.
Enter Pecorino - our wayward contender.
Now, here is something different.
Pecorino first and foremost is sheeps' cheese, named after 'Pecora' - sheep. This white cheese is eaten 'fresco', semi-stagionato' and 'stagionato', according to its maturity, and is incredible at every age, developing in creaminess, texture and taste. Aged pecorino becomes crumbly and sharp, tangy and salty while young Pecorino remains smooth.
Pecorino also has a Protected Designation of Origin (D.O.P.) and comes in six official mature varieties defined by region. Pecorino Romano (Lazio) is well-known abroad, especially in the US, but internationally lesser-known Pecorino Sardo (Sardinia) is duly found in cheese counters alongside Pecorino Romano throughout Italy and while entirely different with a strong, salty flavour, it's loved just as much by Italians nationwide. The other four official varieties are Pecorino Toscano (Tuscany), Siciliano (Sicily), Filiano (Basilicata), Cratonese (Calabria) and Atri (Abruzzo).
Now, step into the province of Lazio and order a dish in Rome and you'll probably find Pecorino on the menu (and on the table). Some of the most worldly-famous pasta dishes are made with the simplest of recipes, this is the beauty of using exquisite ingredients. The Eternal City's Carbonara is Pecorino Romano, guanciale/pancetta and eggs. Amatriciana is Pecorino Romano, guanciale/pancetta and tomato. Cacio e Pepe has merely two ingredients - Pecorino Romano and cracked black pepper - could it get any simpler?
These Roman beauties are made exclusively with Pecorino, and south of Rome, that's what you'll find.
Let's dig a little more...
Looking at stagionato (mature) variations only, let's investigate texture:
Grana Padano - crumbly, hard, grainy
Parmigiano Reggiano - crumbly, hard, grainy
Pecorino Romano - crumbly, hard
Grana Padano - sharp, nutty, buttery
Parmigiano Reggiano - nutty, complex, tangy
Pecorino Romano - salty, tangy, sharp
All three mature in taste and change over time, depending on the months they've individually aged.
Look out for the following traditional Italian dishes to taste Grana, Parmigiano and Pecorino as ingredients in their natural habitats, or next time you're contemplating food choices, order a 'tagliere' - a board of local cheese and meats - you'll most likely find our contestants amongst other divine options placed before you.
Grana Padano - Risotto Milanese, Minestra, Risotto allo Zafferano (saffron)
Parmigiano Reggiano - Pesto Genovese, Melanzane alla Parmigiana
Pecorino Romano - Bucatini all'amatriciana, Pasta cacio e pepe, Cestini di Parmigiano (little baskets) often as an aperitivo.
'What to order' blog posts on the horizon for Rome, Venice and Cortina.