This Lesser-Known Cheese Is My Favorite Parmesan Alternative
Grana Padano is the name of the game.
Sometimes I like to play a very dorky game with my friends and coworkers that I call "Desert Island Cheese." The premise, like so many desert island games, is simple. Through some unlikely combination of events, you are stranded on an island, but on this island, you can have one cheese. That's it, one cheese for the rest of your life, even though, OK, refrigeration and distribution might be an issue on the island, and sure, shelter and other basic needs might come first. If you're lactose intolerant, vegan, or otherwise not cheese-inclined, this probably is not much of a fun puzzle: No to cheese, thanks, we can move on. But if you're someone who loves cheese, it's a hard choice. If you opt for a nice sharp cheddar, you can have great grilled cheese sandwiches, but you give up the milky melted-ness of mozzerella and burrata. If you go for mozzerella, you're sacrificing all those fun, more pungent varietals on the cheeseboard, plus the occasional crumble of blue cheese or a dollop of goat's cheese in your salad. How do you choose just one cheese?
My answer varies from time to time, but lately, I've been thinking that I could live pretty happily on one hard Italian cheese in particular: Grana Padano. Unlike its more famous Italian hard cheese neighbors, Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano isn't as widely known or sold in the United States, but it should be. It has a softer, more subtle flavor than Parmigiano, less nutty, a little milkier, but still with enough salty bite that it makes for a great cheese to shave into a salad or sprinkle over pasta.
Think of Grana Padano as a sparkling wine rather than a Champagne—it has similar characteristics to something you're probably already familiar with, but because there are slightly looser regulations around its production, there's a bit more room for cheesemakers. As Parmigiano Reggiano comes from the Parma or Reggio Emilia areas of Italy, Grana Padano comes from the Po Valley. Both are protected under Italian DOP status, both gain different characteristics as they age. And crucially, particularly if you go to the kind of place that has a cheese counter to purchase a block of something, it's often cheaper than Parmigiano. And for something that's just as good, that's exciting.
I love a hunk of 24-month-aged Parmigiano Reggiano dearly, and the sharp, salty bite of Pecorino. But sometimes those are investment cheeses and I need a more I-just-paid-my-rent kind of cheese that's still as high in quality and flavor as those other gems. Grana Padano is the answer. Try it wherever you might otherwise reach for the Parmigiano, and maybe, you too, will think of it as your Desert Island cheese.