The milk-processing method used to make this cheese dates back to the eleventh century when Benedictine and Cistercian monks embarked upon the daunting task of reclaiming and clearing the Po valley thereby also improving its living conditions.
The monks' immense undertaking breathed new life into improvements in agriculture; livestock was also raised in the area, including cattle, used for working the land and for dairy farming. As milk became more readily available, the monks set out to improve the cheese-making process to find a way to preserve cheese for longer. They came up with a clever solution to heat the milk to draw off the curd more easily, producing a denser, longer-lasting cheese.
Grana, named after its grainy texture, won immediate favour among noble families and soon became the grated cheese of choice throughout the north of Italy. Its popularity spurred strong competition among regions that produced it, with the blissful outcome that the cheese continued to improve, to become today one of the most commonly "imitated" products in the world. Thus, the celebrated "Piasentin" initially made only in the area between the Po, Ticino and Adda rivers, was adopted by other cheese-makers, mainly around the river Po and in the Po valley. Here, the excellent fertile lands and the favourable climate (cold and rainy in winter, hot in summer) remain ideal for cattle breeding.
The Alps surround the plain to create a barrier against the cold winds from the North, and feed the lakes, rivers and streams that supply pure water to the plains even in dryer months, the true natural wealth of Grana Padano P.D.O. area. The semi-fat, hard cheese is cooked and ripened slowly. It is produced by curdling the milk of cows fed on green or dried forage. The cheese is made from cow's milk obtained from two milkings a day; the milk is left to stand and then partially skimmed. It is then poured into cauldrons and the cheese-maker adds just the right amount of whey starter culture as it reaches a temperature of 20°C. Calf rennet is added at 31-33°C.
The milk coagulates to form the cheese, the curd is cut and cooked. Enough paste to form a wheel is then removed from the vat and put into the moulds, or fascere. Two days after production, the cheese is immersed in salt brine for 16 to 25 days.
According to the official guidelines, the Grana Padano P.D.O. cheese wheel is required to weigh between 24 and 40 kg, have an average diameter of 40 cm and an average height of 20 cm; the cheese has to ripen for at least 9 months. Its colour must be white or straw yellow, it should have fine grains that split into slivers.
The flavour is sweet and pungent; the aroma is intense without being overbearing, with an unwavering persistence. Its quality is very apparent when a perfectly aged Grana Padano cheese is grated onto dishes it traditionally pairs well with, such as pasta, rice or on simple soups.