High quality cheese, produced faithfully according to tradition, with milk collected within a radius of 8 kilometres, is preferred to large volumes
First rule: follow the Production Specifications of Grana Padano PDO cheese which is a direct descendant of “Granone Lodigiano” cheese. It is no coincidence that the Zucchelli Dairy in Orio Litta, a rural centre in the lower Lodigiano area, experimented for a long time with the ancestor of grana cheeses before becoming, in 1954, one of the 12 founders of the PDO protection consortium.
The double bottomed, copper vats shaped like an inverted bell
“Grana Padano was created by the Cistercian monks who first reclaimed our lands in the Lodi area and needed to conserve the nutrients present in the surplus milk they produced. There are historical documents attesting to its origin between Milan and Lodi. They could not have invented it in the Parma area, where there were no cows, but herding “.
As Mr Abbà tells us, right here, inside the ancient Cascina Marmorina (Marmorina Farm), which still houses the company today, the tradition of gestures and rites handed down through the centuries by the monks, who started producing it almost a 1.000 years ago, are continued.
The plastic moulds in which the wheels are placed on the first day of production
«”The goal – explains Abbà – is to safeguard the original production techniques, those that have made the reputation of Grana Padano so great”. It starts with raw milk, left to rest for about 12-13 hours then partially skimmed before processing and being heated in the copper-lined vats with the addition of the whey-starter and the rennet. From each vat, two twin wheels will be extracted wrapped in a linen cloth and then put in moulds for a few days then in brine before being brought to the ageing warehouse.
It is also fundamental, and this is rule number 2, to keep the quality constant, an undertaking that is not easy when it comes to processing raw milk which by its nature is also subject to seasonal variations. The origin of the milk is closely linked to the territory because the 6 farms that supply the Zucchelli Dairy are located within a radius of just 8 kilometres from the dairy. The link between the territory and the raw material characterises the final product and the farms have been carefully selected over time, so much so that some have been suppliers for 65 years.
“The milk delivered is never the same, each farm produces milk with different characteristics, but precisely these differences represent an advantage in the finished product. It is up to the dairy to process the raw material in a certain way and enhance it. The quality of our Grana Padano – explains Abbà – is linked not only to the raw material, but also to the experience gained over the years and to those little tricks that the cheesemaker has developed and jealously guards, always in compliance with the Production Specifications”».
However, the canonical respect for the hand-made production of the cheese, with all the expertise of the cheesemaker, i.e. the “spinatura” (breaking of the curd), mixing, cooking, resting extraction of the wheels, does not mean one has to renounce innovations to ease the manual work: in the Zucchelli Dairy, automated systems for de-creaming the milk and dosing it into the vats or the robot machines that move, clean and brush the wheels in the maturing warehouse.
There is also a plan to expand the room in which the wheels are put into brine.
The extraction of the cheese mass, divided then in 2 to create two “twin” wheels
“We do not want to force or exacerbate production” – emphasises Ambrogio Abbà – “but to keep to around 100 wheels of Grana Padano per day, about 30-32 thousand per year. We have no expansionistic ambitions: we are convinced that by increasing the quantity, the cheese could lose something in quality and value. Our Grana Padano stands out for its aromaticity and creaminess. It is never strong, rough or salty and maintains these characteristics even when it is aged for a long time, thanks to the cheesemaking techniques we use.”
In order to maintain this balance, in the processing is stopped in summer and the raw material is sold to be used for other productions.
The limited, but valuable, offer meets the demand for a provincial, regional and national market. “For years our product”, explains Abbà, “has been sold to historical customers, to merchants who portion and distribute the cheese and then also to shops, delicatessens and small mobile shops. Recently we have started exporting, given the immobility of national consumption, especially in the UK, Germany and Ukraine”. The development of the export channel is now entrusted to his son Alberto, 36, who also follows the production of the dairy in collaboration with his brother Alessandro, 38, and the technical staff.
Most of the Grana Padano production reaches a maturation of about 10 months, but 25% reaches 24 months or more. The most seasoned product, Riserva and beyond, rests in an old cowshed, which has been transformed into a maturing warehouse and houses 6 thousand wheels: “We have wheels of over 36 months, 4 and even 5 years. In our area we can age longer, and Grana Padano always remains fragrant and sweet, without ever becoming spicy or hard.”
The Zucchelli Dairy brand is well known in the Lodi area also for the raspadura of Tipico Lodigiano, a predecessor of Grana Padano which is produced in the area and shaved into sort of veils. The turnover of the Zucchelli Dairy stands at € 12 million per year.
“My grandfather was one of the founders of the Grana Padano Protection Consortium. The old grandfather’s barn, at the beginning, had been transformed into a small dairy and today it has become a seasoning warehouse for the finest wheels, those over 20 months.”
Attached to the dairy there is a farm of 4 thousand pigs that extends over three farms for a total area of 200 hectares, all growing cereals for zootechnical feeding. The farm is managed by Alessandro Abbà.
Left, Alessandro Abbà who manages the farm and collaborates with his brother Alberto (right)who deals with export and production. In the center, Ambrogio Abbà, owner of the Zucchelli Dairy
The Zucchelli Dairy takes its name from the founder, Ambrogio Zucchelli, who with his wife Rosa Dedè and his sons Giovanni and Lucia moved in 1942 to the Cascina Marmorina in Orio Litta. Father and son started an agricultural-dairy activity that slowly but steadily grew. In 1948, at the death of the founder, the son-in-law Paolo Abbà together with his brother-in-law Giovanni, continued a thirty-year old partnership. At the end of the seventies, Ambrogio Abbà, Paolo’s son and current sole director of the dairy, joined the company. In the following twenty years, the company underwent a further decisive expansion phase up to its current size, focusing on quality and the constant search for excellence.
The ageing warehouse