How would you like to be in a temperature-controlled room, surrounded by $190 million worth of grana padano cheese? It was the final stop in a visit I made recently to Caseificio Santa Vittoria near the town of Carpaneto, in the region of Emilia Romagna, where most of my Italian relatives live. Before we get to that final stop however, I'll take you through the steps used in making this glorious cheese.
Every day at this caseificio, about 116 thousand pounds of milk are collected and placed in large stainless steel tanks, where most of the cream is separated out and made into butter. The partially skimmed milk is placed in large copper pots, where natural whey, derived from the previous day's cheese-making process, is added. This natural culture of lactic bacteria augments the acidity, helping to solidify the milk into cheese. The milk is then heated to about 87 degrees fahrenheit, and rennet, derived from cows' stomachs, is added for coagulation. The milk starts to become more gelatinous and curds are broken up in the cauldron. It's then cooked at a higher temperature of between 127 degrees and 132 degrees fahrenheit.
The curdled milk from each of the copper vats is then placed into plastic pots that are lined with linen cloth. The liquid part, or the whey, stays behind and some of it is used for fermatation of the following day's milk. The whey is also what's used to later make ricotta, a word that means "recooked." Each copper vat holds enough curdled milk to fill two of the plastic forms.
A day later, the cheese has firmed enough to be put into round stainless steel forms. This will give the cheese its distinctive shape, during the three days when it's kept at a low temperature to solidify.
Giuseppe Rizzi, who manages the caseificio and who was kind enough to give us a tour, explained that each wheel is stamped with a teflon form that indicates its identity - the date and where it was made.
The wheels travel along an assembly line where a worker removes the stainless steel lining and stamps the cheese, both with the teflon imprint, and with another imprint on top.
They keep moving on the belt until they are pushed into a vat of salted water.
They remain in the saline solution for about twenty-three days, a process that helps form what will become the hard, outer rind.
The wheels of cheese are cleaned with plain water to get rid of any excess salt and left to age on shelves for at least nine months, and as long as 30 months.
Every 10 days, a machine rotates the wheels of cheese and cleans them with a brush to keep mold from forming on the outside. As they age, they're cleaned less often.
The wheel below was made in March 2010. The PC on the side refers to the province of Piacenza and the number 507 to the Caseificio Santa Vittoria. These cheeses are considered D.O.P., or "Dominazione Origine Protetta." That's a guarantee by the European Union that the cheese has been made using rigid standards and is worthy enough to receive the fire branding mark of "grana padano."
Each of these shelves holds 1,180 forms of cheese, and the entire caseificio contains 45,000 wheels of cheese. My son Michael, as well as me and my cousin Lucia, were trying to figure out a way to take one home, but maybe I should have planned better and brought a larger purse.
Grana Padano tastes a lot like parmigiano reggiano, but there is a difference in both how it tastes and how it's made. You can find out more about parmigiano reggiano by clicking on a post I wrote about it a couple of years ago here. For Grana Padano, cows are permitted a broader range of food and are raised in an area that's twice the size of the area where parmigiano is made. Padano refers to the Po Valley, and as seen in the map below, the cheese is made in Lombardia and some parts of Emilia-Romagna, but also in Piedmont and the Veneto. Parmigiano, however, is strictly confined to the four provinces in the region of Emilia Romagna: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna.
Grana Padano is less salty and less complex than parmigiano reggiano, but it's also less expensive. Both are delicious, but parmigiano has that nutty crunch of crystals between my teeth that I love. Some people buy the less expensive grana padano to grate, but it's also wonderful as a table cheese. At the caseificio, a kilo (2.2 pounds) of grana padano that's aged 20 months costs about $16.00, or a little more than $8 a pound, considerably less than here in the states.
Stay tuned for my next post when you get to see how my cousin put this wonderful cheese to work in a typical Piacentine dish called "Pisarei e faso."