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Thursday 13 September 2012

Italy on a plate: Grana Padano & Prosciutto di San Daniele

When it comes to dream food trips this could not have been more perfect, being sent off to find out more about Grana Padano cheese and Prosciutto di San Daniele is basically my idea of food Heaven.

I must confess that before the trip I didn't really know a huge amount about Grana Padano cheese apart from the fact that it was cheaper to buy than Parmesan, so I had stupidly assumed that it wasn't as good. I still feel bad about making that assumption because it's totally wrong. One of the main reasons that Grana Padano is cheaper is because it comes from further north in Italy where there is more rain. The dairy cows are fed from fields of lush naturally watered corn and it's silage whereas further south where they make Parmesean it is drier, the cows are fed on a diet of grass and hay which often needs to be watered by mechanical means, hence it's more expensive. We drove past field upon field of corn which I had assumed was for polenta but actually only about 1% of the corn grown gets turned into polenta, it's all used to feed the Grana Padano herds. Grana Padano is also the most popular cheese in Italy so greater quantities are made therefore making production costs lower and resulting in it costing us less to buy. 
How ace is this bike? Perfect for carrying a huge wheel of Grana Padano!
Because the dairy cows are fed completely different diets, Grana Padano tastes different to Parmesan, it's sweeter and the young cheeses are almost fruity. The Italians love to eat it in chunks as an appetiser with a glass of wine. I've been sneakily snapping off and nibbling on big chunks of cheese for years and feeling rather naughty about it, but in Italy it's the done thing (hurrah!). Big chunks of cheese accompanied by a glass of Prosecco, yep that's definitely the way to do things! It's made from naturally separated semi skimmed raw milk so it's low in fat too (woohoo!) and is also suitable for people who are lactose intolerant. It's brilliant to cook with and since my trip it's now an absolute essential on my shopping list. 
The wheels are carefully matured to perfection

You can buy 3 different ages of Grana, the youngest is aged for a minimum of 9 months and is pretty fruity, the next is aged for a minimum of 16 months (has OLTRE 16 MESI on label) and is more full flavoured with greater depth, yes cheese depth! Finally there is my favourite, the vintage which is aged for a minimum of 20 months and is really rich and intensely flavoured so it's perfect for gnawing on with a glass of chilled Prosecco whist cooking dinner. This eldest cheese has a black label, if you spot it BUY IT, it's incredible, too good to cook with really, keep this one for nibbling. The younger Grana Padano is wonderful to cook with, use it to make my dead simple 10 Minute Garlic Pasta dish (I pretty much live on this) use it in place of stilton in Siany's amazing pastry, make the easiest cheesy leeks ever or use it to make this awesome (and also addictive) cannelloni:
                                    Grana Padano Cannelloni with Asparagus

I couldn't find any cannelloni tubes at the supermarket so I just bought fresh lasagne sheets and rolled them up instead. This actually turned out to be the best way I think as it meant I could roll layers of amazing cheese sauce into each piece of pasta like a swill roll, so extra cheesy layered goodness! If you fancy you could also lay your homemade cannelloni on a bed of passata so the dish consists of the colours of the Italian flag, I'd intended to do this but smashed the jar of passata (perhaps something to do with the prosecco). For me though it didn't need it in the end as I loved the cheesy sauce far too much!

You'll need: Serves 2 
  • 8 fresh lasagne sheets 
  • 8 Asparagus spears 
  • 500g cream cheese (low fat/extra light is fine)
  • 100g grated Grana Padano (I used the shop bought freshly grated packet cheese)
  • 150g roasted red pepper antipasti, drained of oil (jars of sun dried tomatoes or artichokes would also be brilliant)
  • handful of basil leaves and stalks
  • plenty of freshly ground black pepper
Make it!
  1. Preheat your oven to 180C. Put your cream cheese, Grana Padano, peppers, basil and black pepper into a food processor and blend until smooth. At this point it's really important that you don't eat the lot, it's completely addictive, I ate about half straight out of the processor hence the photo looks a bit dry!
  2. Snap any woody ends off your asparagus spears then take a lasagne sheet and smooth a layer of your cheese mixture over the entire length of it. Place an asparagus spear at one end then roll it up  before place in in a roasting tray with the join on the underside. Repeat with all the spears then cover the top with more cheese sauce and a sprinkle of Grana Padano. Cover with foil and roast for 20 minutes then remove foil and roast until the sauce is bubbling and starting to brown. Serve with a green salad and washed down with a lovely glass of your favourite wine.

I feel all kinds of happy whist nibbling on big chunks of Grana Padano, sipping a glass of Italian wine and cooking a big pasta dish. Because Grana has a sweetness to it you can pair it with light reds as well as the more full bodied ones. No longer am I being naughty with that chunk of nutty cheesy goodness, oh no, I am now the embodiment of italian chic *ahem* as I gnaw away to my heart's content.

Friuli - the perfect place to cure ham (and live!)
Cheese and ham go together like gin and tonic. Grana Padano cheese found a natural food buddy in Prosciutto di San Daniele. The naturally rich milk whey left over from the cheese making process is fed to the local pigs which ensures a beautifully sweet meat. The absolute magic bit that sets it apart from other Italian air dried hams though is where the legs are then cured. San Daniele del Friuli is a small hill top town at the foot of the Alps near the east coast of Italy. The cool wind that rolls down from the snow capped Alps meets the warm, salty breeze of the Adriatic sea and creates the perfect microclimate of temperature and humidity in which to cure the legs and turn them into total meaty heaven.

The legs are cured simply using just the natural sea salt from the Adriatic and hung in the gentle breeze until perfect. There are men who have spent many years learning how to test exactly when the legs are ready. Every day they check them to ensure that each leg is perfec,t and it's only then that they are branded as Prosciutto di San Daniele and venture out into the world as fully fledged cured awesome.

Only perfect prosciutto gets the brand
So the hams have been lovingly cured in the fresh breeze of San Daniele, passed the strict quality tests, been branded with fire and made their way into delis and onto supermarket shelves in the UK and finally into your kitchen, now what to do with it?

Yeah THATS my kinda elevenses
Like Grana Padano, the prosciutto di San Daniele is often eaten before meals as an appetiser, usually wrapped around a crispy bread stick and washed down with a glass of chilled Prosecco or Friulano wine. In fact no matter what time of day we arrived at our next destination, we were greeted and waved off with prosciutto breadsticks, chunks of Grana Padano and glasses of Prosecco, yeah it's fair to say I never wanted to leave. After 3 days of this, you'd think that I would be a bit tired of it by the time I got back to cold old Blighty but no, what did we have for dinner the day I got home? Yep, breadsticks wrapped in prosciutto di San Daniele and chunks of Grana Padano, all washed down with a bottle of chilled Prosecco! Grana Padano has been made in the same way in Italy for over 1000 years, Italians know good food and the fact that Grana Padano is the most popular cheese in Italy says it all.

I ate my own bodyweight (no mean feat) in Grana Padano and Prosciutto whilst in Italy and still craved more so upon returning (another reason I'm extra happy that it is naturally low in fat!) so I set about getting my fix in as many ways as possible. The following recipe ticks EVERY box of awesome:

Cesti di Impressionante Bonta (Baskets of Awesome Goodness!)

Since coming up with this recipe it has become somewhat of a permanent craving. The crispy, salty wafer thin prosciutto contrasts perfectly with the creamy, cheesy Grana Padano filling. They are really easy to make, completely addictive and THE perfect accompaniment to...yes a chilled glass of Prosecco!

You'll need:
  • Prosciutto di San Daniele (about 1 slice per basket)
  • 100g cream cheese
  • 50g grated Grana Padano cheese
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • a few chives
Make it!
  1. Grab a muffin or mini tart tin and lay a slice of prosciutto into each hole to form a basket. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 180C for about 5-8 minutes or until the baskets are nice and crispy. Remove from the oven and crank up the heat to about 220C.
  2. Make your filling by putting the cream cheese, Grana Padano some of your snipped chives and black pepper into a food processor and blitzing until smooth and fluffy.
  3. Put a teaspoon of your cheese mixture into each basket and return the tray to the oven for about 4- 6 minutes or until your filling has swollen up. Scatter with your remaining chopped chives and  crack open a bottle of wine.
On our final night in Italy we went along to the Aria di Festa in San Daniele del Friuli, which is basically an entire festival devoted to prosciutto di San Daniele, we should definitely have more meat festivals in this country!
Not too shabby for a Town Hall!
Over the course of 4 days the small hill top village in Friuli which has a population of just 8000 welcomes tens of thousands of ham enthusiasts (I think I now qualify as one too) to its small but beautiful ancient town for a weekend of bands, drinking and lots of prosciutto di San Daniele. There were stalls and stages set up around the entire town, "oooh whats going on over there?" we all cooed eyeing up a huge crowd stood around a wall of cured pig legs, "thats a lottery, you win an entire leg" came the reply. Yes we DEFINITELY need more festivals like that in this country! We were invited along to a rather swanky party that was being thrown for the movers and shakers of the prosciutto scene at the Town Hall. Their town hall puts ours to serious shame, it was more like a small palace and I half expected to be presented with a perfectly balanced tower of Ferrero Rocher at any moment. 

Everyone was just so glamorous and beautiful, we drank beautiful Fruilian wines and feasted on incredible food (not a Ferrero Rocher in sight). The highlight of the food for me was a tempura'd cantaloupe melon. It was an absolute revelation and even took many of the Italian guests by surprise.

 I decided to recreate it once I got back home but I added a blanket of salty prosciutto around the sweet melon seeing as wherever we went, beautiful ripe melon was served with the wafer thin ham. All I can say is WOW. It may sound a little weird but you really must try this. The batter is light and delicate, the prosciutto salty and crispy and the sweet melon is soft and juicy, it really is an eye opener.

Tempura of Prosciutto di San Daniele and Cantaloupe

You'll need:
  • 1 mug of cornflour
  • chilled sparkling water
  • vegetable oil
  • ripe cantaloupe melon
  • prosciutto di San Daniele
Make it!
  1. Make your tempura batter by mixing enough sparkling water into your sieved cornflour until it reaches the consistency of single cream. Be careful not to over mix though, lumps are fine.
  2. Cut you melon into bite sized chunks and wrap the prosciutto around each piece.
  3. Heat your oil in a small saucepan until a bit of bread gently sizzles when you drop it in.
  4. Roll each melon parcel in the cornflour then dip into the batter before carefully lowering into the oil.
  5. They only take about a minute or so to cook. Drain on kitchen towel and eat whilst warm. Prepare to be amazed...and fall in love.
Over the last few weeks I've seen Grana Padano wheels finally start to appear in my local supermarkets, I can't tell you how happy this makes me as it's become a kitchen staple in my cottage. I just buy a big wedge and it goes into about 60% of dishes that I make each week (the remaining 40% being mostly cake!). 

Even as I sit here in the garden writing this, I have a glass of red wine next to me and a little plate with 4 chunks of Grana Padano that I'm nibbling on. I've been away on so many trips and fallen in love with a local delicacy or wine only to bring it back to the UK and it's lost all of its sparkle. Well, I can happily say that hasn't happened this time. I absolutely cannot wait to return to Verona and San Daniele but in the mean time I'm happy that I can head to my local supermarket, buy this amazing cheese and air dried ham, open a bottle of Prosecco, close my eyes and I'm right back there with every mouthful.


  1. That happens to me a lot. "Oh, I'll buy a bottle of this local booze, that's a great idea." Suddenly it's not as appealing when you get to Gatwick and it's pouring with rain.

  2. Oooh my, I have a (dirty, greasy) love of those bacon baskets with egg and parmesan but your Baskets of Awesome Goodness look a lot classier! I need them in my mouth asap (and a trip to Italy as well) xxx

    1. That filling is just magic, would be brilliant in homemade ravioli too :)


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