You can’t taste everything (try as you might). So it helps to have a reliable filter to separate the merely good from the great.
For many foods from Europe, the PDO seal serves that purpose. The Protected Designation of Origin stamp guarantees that a product—such as a cheese, balsamic vinegar or cured ham—has met rigorous standards. Strictly enforced by the European Union, these regulations set a high bar.
It’s not easy to get PDO certification. To qualify, the food must be produced in a strictly defined geographic region according to methods that comply with rules set down by the governing consortium based on centuries-old recipes, techniques and methods that have proven over time to be safe, effective and the most flavorful. And there are more hurdles. To receive the PDO seal, a food must be all natural—no artificial ingredients or preservatives—and pass a third-party inspection. The inspector verifies that the product is genuine and meets the strict standards set for it.
Think of the PDO program as a Hall of Fame for European foods. But the seal’s purpose goes beyond bragging rights. It protects authentic products against imitators, and keeps inferior products—like cheap balsamic vinegar—from trading on the reputation of the great ones. If you want genuine Prosciutto di Parma, genuine Prosciutto di San Daniele or genuine aceto
balsamico di Modena, look for the coveted PDO stamp.
Curing pork with salt is an age-old practice, a way of preserving fresh meat for leaner times. The ancient Etruscans knew how to do it and passed their techniques to the Romans. “Nothing is more useful than salt and sun,” wrote Pliny the Elder, the Roman author, in the first century B.C. Is it any wonder that Italian artisans, with so many centuries of practice, have perfected prosciutto?
When you sample those thin, silky slices of Prosciutto di Parma or Prosciutto di San Daniele, you are tasting history—countless years of expertise and accumulated knowledge, passed from generation to generation, resulting in recipes that really can’t be improved.
These two Italian cured hams look much alike and have a lot in common: long heritage, top reputations and the prestigious PDO status. But they differ in significant ways due to their respective environments. As you taste them and get to know them, you’ll realize that it’s not an either/or choice. Italians treasure both hams and use them both—savoring the subtle flavor differences that reflect the different landscapes, pork breeds and curing methods.
For Prosciutto di Parma:
Recipe: Asian Pear, Daikon Sprouts and Proscuitto di Parma Roulade with Wasabi Aioli
For Prosciutto di San Daniele:
Recipe: Roasted Squash and Tomato Salad with Arugula and Prosciutto di San Daniele
A a cornerstone of la cucina italiana and one of the world’s oldest cheeses, Grana Padano is made in the Padana Valley, which stretches from Piedmonth in the west, all the way to Veneto in the east and includes 27 provinces. This hefty wheel dominates the counter in almost every market and cheese shop in the country. Almost one-quarter of Italy’s fluid milk goes to Grana Padano production. The cheese is exported around the world—the Japanese are big fans—but Italy’s per-capita consumption is enormous.
Every step of the Grana Padano recipe is regulated to guarantee consistency and quality. The milk must be raw, from two milkings, and partly skimmed. (Lower-fat cheeses tend to age better.) Typically, the evening milk rests overnight to allow the cream to rise. After skimming, it’s mixed in a copper vat with the morning milk and some whey from the previous day’s cheesemaking. That whey contains all the lactose-loving bacteria necessary to launch fermentation.
Once the curd forms, the cheesemaker cuts it into millet-sized pieces—the grana (grain) that gives the cheese its name. Then the curd is cooked briefly to firm it, drained of its whey, transferred to large forms, pressed to make it compact, and brined for nearly a month. Finally, in the aging cellars, humans step aside and time takes over. Slowly, enzymes and air work their magic, creating a hard rind; a firm, granular, golden interior; and an aroma of brown butter that intensifies with age.
At nine months, the minimum age, Grana Padano makes a delectable table cheese, nutty, snackable and easily cubed. At 24 months, the maximum age, it is brittle enough for grating. Young wheels have a sweetness that’s appealing with spring vegetables, like asparagus and peas. As the wheels mature and the flavor deepens, think of Grana Padano for bean and lentil soups, mushroom dishes and pizza. Whatever you do, don’t stop at pasta.
Recipe: Savory Grana Padano Umami Seasoning
Even in Europe, there aren’t many cheeses with an 800-year history. Yet historians believe that Benedictine monks were making Montasio back in the 13th century. The abbey where this wheel likely originated still stands, in the Italian Alps near Udine, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. It’s a convent now, and Montasio is made in multiple creameries today. But many centuries after the religious order devised it, this cow’s-milk wheel remains the region’s signature cheese.
When young, it’s a mellow and sliceable table cheese, for snacking or for a cheese course. In full maturity, it’s ideal for grating. In between—and there’s a long “in between”—Montasio gets a workout in panini, risotto and polenta and on the antipasto platter with salumi. Italians everywhere know this cheese because everyone knows and loves frico, the crisp, lacy cheese wafer made from grated Montasio.
Montasio belongs to the prestigious group of PDO cheeses in Italy, which means that everything about its production is defined and monitored. The permitted zone in northeast Italy includes areas around Udine, Belluno, Treviso and Padova. Raw milk is required, to preserve the flavor of the natural bacteria. The regulations specify every step of the recipe so that consumers and cooks can expect consistent character from every wheel of Montasio. The only difference between wheels is the age.
Fresh (fresco): aged between 2 and 4 months; milky, sour-cream aroma, gentle flavor, a barely formed rind and a few small eyes
Medium-aged (mezzano or semistagionato): 4 months to 10 months; a more compact texture and straw color, aromas of brown butter, and a more pronounced flavor
Aged (stagionato): 10 months to 18 months; more brittle, golden and aromatic, with a nutty scent and a slightly piquant finish
Extra-aged (stravecchio): 18 months and older; ideal for grating; intense and highly savory
Montasio melts well at every age, making it a go-to choice in the kitchen. Some ideas:
Recipe: Greystone Onion Soup with Montasio Souffle
Language Lesson: PDO is the acronym in the English language. In France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, it’s DOP. In Germany and Austria, it’s g.U. All refer to the same credential but in that country’s language. So in Italy, for example, “protected designation of origin” becomes denominazione di origine protetta, or DOP.