Until recently, Grana Padano and I were long-lost pen pals. My last blog post about this strapping cheese was back in 2010 when I spent an evening with Grana making pesto. Then in 2012, when I was writing Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese, we corresponded again – I called Grana “Parmigiano’s understudy.”
That’s because Grana Padano is typically younger and less expensive than Parm. A good snacker, cheesemongers told me. Not as complex as Parm, but still reliable.
We got reacquainted, Grana Padano and I, at a party in Napa a few weeks ago. I watched a big Sicilian named Francesco break down a giant wheel of Grana, which was a little bit like watching someone claw open a boulder. Many small knives (a.k.a. Parm stilettos) must be inserted around the wheel’s hard midsection. Then the knife handles are jostled until the cheese snaps apart into two clean rounds. Voila, it opens like a geode. All glistening crystal.
Once opened, there is a perfume.
Yes, a perfume. It is sweet, the way you wish your sock drawer could smell. Like fresh apricots. And the taste? Like dried stone fruit and warm milk. A comfort cheese.
About Grana Padano
- Grana means “granular” – it falls apart on the tongue, like a sugar cube. Padano refers to its origin: a clearly defined area around the Po River in northern Italy, where the cows graze. It’s a raw milk cheese.
- Monks developed the recipe for Grana in the 12th century, aiming for a practical hard cheese that could be aged in caves for years. (Stock your bunkers with it!) So, it lasts a lonnng time.
- Grana was one of the first cheeses protected by the European Union. Not just anybody can produce a cheese called Grana Padano. Like Champagne, it’s connected to a region and to regulations.
- Four million wheels of Italian Grana are sold each year. In order to be branded as Grana Padano, the wheels have to be inspected and certified. Young wheels (9 to 16 months) are pale in color and mild in flavor. After 16 months, the cheese crystalizes (look for white dots) and grows sweetly tangy. Wheels marked Riserva are age 20+ months gain a golden color, plus a bigger flavor.
Four Drink Pairings
Go big red. Yes, yes, this cheese likes those heavy reds. Raid your basement for a Barolo, then cut into some good cured meat and set out some good Italian olives.
Get fizzy. Like Parm, Grana is great with Prosecco and other bubblies. Pop a bottle on the stoop, and serve some Grana shards with a bowl of stone fruit. A Bellini (bubbles + peach puree) would be awfully dreamy to pair.
Grab some kombucha. Right. I know you don’t believe me. But it works. Avoid the berry ‘booch on this one. Stick with a fairly plain variety that’s pleasantly sweet and tart. Add some raw nuts, and you’ve got the best possible desk lunch.
Cocktail it up. Try a sherry cocktail, so you can lean on a bit of fruity richness. A Coronation Cocktail is one of my new faves, a recipe I tested recently for a new book. Of course the recipe is below, dahhhlink.
Recipe: A Coronation Cocktail
A lovely balance of sweet and savory, this vintage cocktail from The Savoy Cocktail Book pairs well with a hunk of Grana and a side of cured meat, like Prosciutto di Parma or Prosciutto di San Daniele.
- 11/2 ounces Amontillado sherry
- 11/2 ounces dry vermouth (I like Noilly Prat)
- 1/4 ounce Luxardo
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- Lemon or orange twist for garnish
Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish.
Disclosure: I learned about the Grana Padano during a recent press trip, and the gorgeous hunk in the photos followed me home in my suitcase.
The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone is sometimes called “Foodie Hogwarts.” Rising above the undulating vineyards of Napa Valley, its dusky stone façade looks castle-like, with an enormous arched doorway that ushers aspiring chefs into what was once a Franciscan winery. When I was invited to spend a long weekend there learning about some Italian specialty foods, I dropped everything and climbed onto a plane.
When I landed, I met 8 chefs from around the country, and together we spent a packed 48 hours tasting cured meats and cheeses. The chefs had two days to invent new dishes in the CIA kitchen, while I roamed the sunlit halls, snapped photos, and grilled importer Francesco Lupo about the two cheeses he brought with him in his suitcase, Grana Padano and Montasio.
Don’t worry. I’ll tell you about the cheeses soon enough. (I flew home with hunks the size of meteors.) First, I want to give you a few glimpses of Napa and my fabulous co-travelers, not to mention our stellar host, Chef Almir Da Fonseca.
Spending time in the CIA kitchen was a reminder of why I do what I do. Blogging about cheese lets me peer into the creative lives of other strangers who love food…
Like Stephanie Boswell, Executive Pastry Chef of The Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. She also manages the cheese program. We became friends over Montasio and a shared love of washed rinds.
Then there was Michael Israel, who left a job at Huckleberry in L.A. to become Senior Manager of Culinary Development at The Cheesecake Factory. We spent a good forty minutes over lunch one day discussing the consistency of a perfect cheesecake. Not surprisingly, he was incredibly articulate.
Not to mention Luis DaCosta, Chef/General Manager of Harvard Dining, who regaled us all with his story of preparing thousands of meals for 4 weeks during a kitchen strike. (Even Harvard professors jumped into help.) At the CIA, he was obsessed with trying out different parts of Prosciutto di Parma in the recipes he created. Here’s something I learned about Prosciutto di Parma: the bottom of the leg is saltiest, best for soup; the top of the leg is sweetest, best for eating on cheese boards.
And of course, we met a few CIA students. The current class hailed from 19 countries. And, like all of us, their passion for food was evident in every movement, from preparing food at the stoves around us to the expressions on their faces when they tasted Chef Almir Da Fonseca’s savory Montasio Donuts.
Hint: the donuts were made from brioche dough, fried, then dipped into a glaze made with honey and freshly grated black truffle. Monumental. This was definitely one of my favorite ways to enjoy Montasio, a gorgeous cheese I’ll tell you all about in an upcoming post.
Full disclosure: My cheese weekend at the CIA was sponsored by Legends From Europe, a consortium devoted to educating food lovers about Prosciutto di Parma, Prosciutto di San Daniele, Grana Padano, and Montasio cheese.
Lovers, like you I am holding out for anything that blooms. As I write this (from bed), I see snowy branches through the windows. In the foreground: a mantelpiece covered in empty tea cups, a rattan chair mostly hidden under a stack of sweaters. It feels like time to focus on finding warmth and color in new places. So, allow me to present some inspo for the ears and eyes, a wee departure from what you usually come here for. I know. But, don’t worry. You’ll find some cheese recommendations, too.
Let’s go down some cozy rabbit holes together…
Raw Milk on My Mind
You may have heard about the recent recall of several raw-milk and pasteurized cheeses in the news. If you’d like to learn more about how cheesemakers are working to ensure greater food safety, peep the new Safe Cheesemaking Hub, created by the American Cheese Society. If you’re a new maker or a home dabbler, you’ll find a great selection of workshops, FAQs, and best practices. This week, I was moved by a letter from a local cheesemaker (Stefanie Angstadt) who gently reminded customers of her commitment to food safety. Recalls frighten everyone and are hard on small makers. Stefanie included a link to this article from National Geographic about the pleasures of eating raw-milk cheeses in Europe and about the ongoing regulatory issues surrounding raw milk in the U.S. Oldways Cheese Coalition, an advocacy organization devoted to preserving dairy traditions, is another great resource for learning more about raw milk.
This goes out to all the cheesemakers who listen to tunes and podcasts in their cheese rooms throughout the day. For some dulcet tones while you stir curds or flip triple cremes, check out the lush beats of Khadja Bonet. I’m such a sucker for her song “Honeycomb” that I listen to it at least once a day. Find me on Spotify if you want to hum together. We could create some dairy-centric playlists? If you are podcast lover with an entrepreneurial cranium, peruse NPR’s How I Built This. (My favorite listens here are the stories behind Honest Tea, Lyft, and Patagonia.)
Mouthwatering Cheese Recipes
I saw New York Times writer Sam Sifton speak last week at a culinary conference, and that reminded me how much I love surfing the newspaper’s recipe box. This week, I’m partial to Baked Risotto with Winter Squash as a blues chaser. Over at 101 Cookbooks, I can’t stop peeping Heidi Swanson’s Beet Caviar with Creme Fraiche. And Emiko Davies has posted a dessert recipe from her latest book, Aquacotta — it’s a Ricotta and Baby Pear Tart that has me all…hot and bothered.
Oh, heyyyy, Philly readers! I had a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week highlighting some fave local cheeses around the city. Take a peep and Discover Great Local Cheeses around Philadelphia. You can read about each of these cheeses in the story…
A few weeks ago, Philadelphia Magazine raided my fridge. Well, not exactly. But they sent a photographer, the fabulous Jauhien Sasnou, to my house one morning with a long list of things to snap. Earring collection. Favorite cheese knives. Cheese boards. A cocktail. Condiments. Cheese.
If you’re interested in reading the full story in Philly Mag, take a gander. It’s online but also in the printed version (maybe you are a subscriber?). In it, you’ll see a bit more of my strange life than I typically share on this blog, from my favorite places to unwind in Philadelphia (it’s true, I love a good Russian sauna and I’m partial to Gin & Tonic menu at Root) to the dictionary my late grandparents wrote early in their marriage. It may explain why I like to write so much, and why I can’t help but call everyone by a nickname.
But let’s talk about the cheese board and the stunning photo of it that Jauhien captured in the morning light streaming across my coffee table a couple of weeks ago. I picked out three cheeses I love to eat this time of year. They’re compact — good for packing in lunches or sharing with a friend or two.
To me, these cheeses form a little runway of flavor. And when I say runway, I do mean runway: I like to serve a gateway cheese (at the top) that’s approachable, then introduce a middle cheese that has a fascinating element (like an ashy rind), followed by a challenge cheese (a stinker at the end)!
On the Cheese Runway…
Pico: Approachable and oozy, this little round of French goat cheese is friendly, easy to find at major retailers (Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s), and terrific to pair with dry cider or sparkling wine. I love to pack this round in my overnight bag when I travel. It comes in a little balsa wood box, like a compact mirror. Major bonus.
Bonne Bouche: This ashy round of goat cheese from Vermont Creamery is one of my go-to party cheeses. Its lunar-like surface is made of vegetable ash, which always intrigues people. The ash is virtually tasteless, but it helps the pillowy rind develop. Bonne Bouche is also an example of great American cheesemaking, a fun comparison cheese to place next to Pico. They are similar in style but very different in taste.
Tiger Lily: You know I love a good stinker. My latest find, from Tulip Tree Creamery in Indiana, is small in size but full of beefy flavor. I love to pair it with funky ferments, like some curried cauliflower from a recipe by Phickle. It’s also a great cheese to enjoy alongside Belgian-style beers. I found this guy at Di Bruno Bros., but you may also be able to find it at other specialty cheese shops. If not, select an Epoisses or a hunk of Taleggio.
Lovers, let me tell you about the Edgar Allen Poe Cheese Cave and Pennsylvania Cider Bar! It’s part of Philly Bierfest (@phillybierfest) this Saturday, February 25, 2017 at the German Society in Philadelphia — a mere hop from the Edgar Allen Poe house. Be still, my telltale heart.
I’ll be there signing copies of Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese and offering cheese & cider pairing advice. Peer below for a list of cheese makers who will be hanging out in the Poe Cave. You’ll be able to meet members of the Pennsylvania Cheese Guild, taste samples, and buy a few brooding hunks from the following dairy dreamers:
- Birchrun Hills Farm [Chester Springs, PA]
- Cherry Grove Farm [Lawrenceville, NJ]
- Farm at Doe Run [Unionville, PA]
- Hidden Hills Dairy [Everett, PA]
- Shellbark Hollow Farm [Honey Brook, PA]
- Valley Milkhouse [Oley, PA]
Now, A Digression About Local Cheesesteaks…
If you miss the fun, here’s another way to taste some local dairy: the PA Cheese Guild has partnered with Cleaver’s, a no bull cheesesteak shop in Center City (108 S. 18th St.) for a month of local cheesesteaks and loaded waffle fries. Pop in between March-24 and look for the following:
- Week 1: March 4 to 10: Trio Steak: ribeye steak with Caputo Brothers’ provola piccante (a hand stretched, young provolone-style cheese with a pleasant kick), green peppers, raw onions, red salsa on a seeded roll
- Week 2: March 11 to 17: Fresco: chicken cutlet with Shellbark Hollow’s goat cheese, arugula, and balsamic glaze on a seeded roll
- Week 3: March 18 to 24: Chicken Fajita: grilled chicken with Caputo Brothers’ provola piccante (a hand-stretched young provolone-style cheese with a pleasant kick), along with fried onions, green peppers, guacamole on a unseeded roll
Bierfest Giveaway Details: Two free regular admission tickets valued at $48 each can be yours! Drop a comment below explaining why you need to explore POE-TIC PAIRINGS. I’ll contact the winner on Friday (2/24) at 9 a.m ET.