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Saturday, 18 September 2010


There’s a memorable and irritating scene in Wayne’s World that sees the malevolent Joshua, smooth rival to the rather cruder Wayne, assert his taste and sophistication by serving champagne. The radiant Cassandra, object of his slimy affections, says she has ‘never had French champagne’ before. Joshua knows, of course, that ‘all champagne is French’; anything else ‘is just sparkling wine.’ He tells everyone so, not letting his smug mask slip for one second. Joshua may be right, but he’s also a dick.

These days, people bang on and on about authenticity in food. Stilton should come from Stilton, Parma ham from Parma, Burgundy from Burgundy and Scotch from Scotland. If your coffee says it’s made of civet shit, then you’d damn well better be able to smell it, goes the thinking. But while no one would argue in favour of ignoring the provenance of our food, it’s important not to confuse worthy efforts to protect the quality of a product with rather less wholesome lobbying to maintain a monopoly.

The Discover the Origin campaign is a part-EU funded promoter of protected designation of origin (PDO) foods and similarly protected wines (though these are often labelled DOC or AOC protected). In short, they make sure that people who buy Parmigiano-Reggiano not only know what they’re buying, but also know about its provenance. The campaign is also highlighting Parma ham, Burgundy wines, port and Douro.

It all sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Of course Stilton should be from Stilton, you might think. Burgundy must come from Burgundy, because it’s a place and a name. Otherwise, Burgundy would be just wine.

But, here’s a thing. Stilton doesn’t come from Stilton. Indeed, cheese made in the Cambridgeshire village of that name could not use the appellation. The PDO for Stilton covers cheese made in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. Not a town named Stilton in sight.

Similarly, Parmigiano-Reggiano does not have to be made in Parma or Reggio Emilia. Makers in Modena, Mantua right of the river Po and Bologna left of the river Reno also have the right to manufacture the cheese. Yes, they’re close by, but that’s not really the point. Despite what some would have you believe, these names are the names of products, not places. An American consumer of Parmigiano-Reggiano might well assume that their cheese was produced in one of the places that give it its name. They might well be wrong.

What on earth is going on then? What are these designations actually for? Well, they certainly help manufacturers who are licensed to produce certified products. If you can sell a cheese under the Parmigiano-Reggiano name, then you can sell it for more than if it were called ‘hard cheese from Italy’ or some such. Indeed, it could be argued that these designations have as much to do with entrenching and preserving monopolies as with protecting traditional products. All things being roughly equal, there’s no reason why you couldn’t produce a cheese in Scunthorpe using traditional methods that could pass for Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Maybe there’s something I’m missing. Whether it’s cheeses or wines, someone always has a reason why a certain area is the only area for production. Perhaps the cows are different, perhaps the soil is different, maybe it’s the temperature, or the humidity, or the incline of the vineyard.

This idea of terroir is all well and good, and may even be accurate for some products – especially wine. But it seems rich to extol the differences between neighbouring vineyards in Burgundy on the one hand and on the other claim that there’s something specific to all Burgundian wines that means they cannot be made anywhere else. Even the geographical argument is something of a red herring. With wines, Burgundy is a brand, not a place. How many people could even point to it on an unlabelled map?

The appellation benefits winemakers in that area, and it may even provide a certain guarantee of quality (though, as Chianti enthusiasts will tell you, some of the very best wines from that area of Italy don’t meet the criteria for the DOC/DOCG label), but it doesn’t tell you all that much about what the wine might taste like, nor why it’s different from similarly made wines that don’t carry the name.

I would argue that the PDO programme and its various equivalents are about money. And while there may be very valid reasons why Burgundy is protected by the French AOC (on which the EU PDO is based), just because it is from Burgundy is not good enough.

There is a principle in European trademark law that it is not permitted to trademark a generic name. This also applies to geographical protection. So cheddar is deemed a generic term and so unprotectable. That’s why we have Canadian cheddar and not just Somerset cheddar. But really, is champagne not generic? Is Parmigiano-Reggiano? Certainly port could be considered a generic term for a dark, sweet, fortified wine.

So if PDO is not the answer, what is? I would argue for some kind of standard that guarantees quality, not provenance – a PDO without the geographical restrictions. It would undoubtedly be a nightmare to organise, and would almost certainly require some sort of international treaty to get it through, but if someone can genuinely make a Stilton cheese in Canberra that is indistinguishable from one made in Leicestershire, why shouldn’t they?

Clearly this is pie in the sky. No one is going to give up a lucrative monopoly voluntarily. But couldn’t we at least drop some of the pretence? Protecting traditions is arguably a worthy endeavour, and there are certainly examples where the geography of a certain area has not morphed into a generic product description, and really does contribute something to the quality of the product. But it is no coincidence that PDO products are more expensive than imitations. Parma ham costs more than Tuscan ham because of its name, not because it's always any better. Often, it's indistinguishable.

Note: I was inspired to write this piece after a freebie bloggers evening at Cucina Caldesi courtesy of Discover the Origin. While I have some reservations about PDO, it was a great evening. My thanks go to Katrina Alloway for organising, Discover the Origin for providing the fun, and Katie Caldesi for her hospitality and excellent demonstration.

1 comment:

  1. Get off the fence Phil ;-)
    glad you enjoyed the evening and hope to see you again soon