Many people think that the massive wheels of Grana Padano, the semi-aged hard Italian cheese, are maybe a cheaper knock-off of better known Parmigiano-Reggiano, In fact, Grana is a great cheese in its own right, and well-known in Italy. Grana Padano is a subtler and less nutty and salty than Parmigiano, with a more delicate flavour that is perfect for the risotto or when you don't want to overpower a dish.
Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano are both northern Italian cheeses originally made by monks, and both come in different lengths of aging. In Italian, Grana is the word for grain, and it's actually the word for a type of cheese whose tiny crags and crannies look a little like specks of grain, So Parmigiano-Reggiano, is actually a type of Grana.
The flavour differences stem from two big differences between the two:
First, Grana Padano is made only with partially skimmed milk, while Parmigiano is made from a mix of whole and skimmed milk.
second, while they are made in the same basic part of Italy, they are also made in different regions from cows that graze on different pastures - meaning the milk tastes a little different (and also changes slightly in flavour) throughout the year).
It is for these reasons that Parmigiano Reggiano has a stronger, more complex, perhaps nuttier and saltier taste – while Grana Padano has a softer, subtler taste then Grana Padano is more usually used in cooking, while Parmigiano is more often grated on top of a dish…. and eaten in chunks with a majestic Italian red wine like Barolo.
And what is Parmesan cheese?
Parmesan cheese has a rich history going all the way back to the Middle Ages. The first record of Parmigiano-Reggiano is from 1254. Around 900 years ago. During the 1300s and 1400s, Benedictine monks had a monopoly on parmesan cheese and would export it to different regions of Italy. As the cheese became more popular, it spread to the rest of Europe
This popularity meant that Parmigiano-Reggiano imitators popped up all over the place, so Italy issued a decree that placed exclusive control over the production and sale of this cheese in the hands of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese Conzorzio. In 1955, the official name of authentic “parmesan” cheese became Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Then, if you want to buy the real thing, you should purchase Parmigiano-Reggiano. All the cheeses labelled simply “parmesan” are not Italian.