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When Cheese Is Not Just Cheese: Getting Picky About Origin

What's in a brand name? In Europe, it means you've found 'the real thing.'

It's 6 a.m. Workers already are on the job at the Baganzolini Cooperative just outside the Italian city of Parma. Every morning, trucks collect fresh milk before dawn and bring it here to be transformed into cheese.

And not just any cheese. This plant produces one of the world's best-loved varieties: Parmigiano Reggiano.

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Forget the triumphal march of bland global cuisine cooked from anonymous ingredients. In an era marked by industrialized agriculture, more and more consumers want to know where and how their foodstuffs are produced. Food connoisseurs are increasingly relying on strict labeling to preserve quality and tradition.

Europe is leading the way. Only cows that graze within about 75 miles of Parma, for example, can provide the raw material for "real" Parmesan. The trucks empty the milk into giant traditional copper cauldrons, where it will be cooked down into curd. Only unpasteurized, natural enzymes may be used to curdle the milk.

"A pasteurized Parmesan would be unthinkable," says Leo Bertozzi, promotions director at the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Two times a year, the European Union (EU) issues "Designation of Origin" labels. To qualify, products must come from a specific geographic region: Bresse chickens from France's Bresse region, Jamon Serrano (ham) from Spain's Serrano, and Italian Parmesan from Parma. They must rely on authentic ingredients and handmade methods of production.

In part, these labels safeguard against fraud, such as when the Dutch sell grated gouda cheese as Parmesan. Most often, though, the food appellation simply aims to allow small-scale, "artisan" producers to ask higher prices and stay in business.

"We want to protect traditional foods against imitators," says Martine Poudelet, the EU's food-label director.

Both producers and consumers praise the program. Bernard Loiseau, a three-star Michelin chef in Burgundy, long refused to serve local Charolais beef. "The farmers here used so many hormones," he says, that made the meat tougher. But when a group of local farmers stopped using hormones, designating their beef with a red label, Mr. Loiseau started using Charolais again.

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When the chef prints his next menu, he plans to list places of origins for the ingredients in his recipes. "The customer wants to know that the veal comes from the Limousin region, the truffles from Perigord, and the chicken from Bresse," Loiseau says. "Cooking these days is 90 percent the quality of the products."

As with any trend, excesses can be expected. So far, the EU has recognized more than 300 food products, ranging from Finnish Lapland potatoes to German Black Forest mushrooms to even a French hay called Foin de Crau. It is grown only in the swampy Camargue region of southern France by 400 authorized farmers who produce just 5,000 tons a year.

"It wasn't easy to get people to take our request seriously," admits Didier Tronc, president of the Foin de Crau Committee. "But our hay has special vitamins and minerals." Crau also costs twice as much as regular feed.

This rage for authenticity began at the turn of the century when massive fraud overtook the French wine industry. A 1905 law required vintners to state the place of origin of their wines. Legislation in 1935 awarded the right to use certain labels only to those vineyards using specific grapes within given boundaries.

To enforce the laws, the government created a division of the Ministry of Agriculture called the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO). In Italy, an Indiccazione Geographica Typica has protected Parmesan since 1954. Spain has its Instuto Nacional de Nominaciones de Origien. France's INAO gained power to license cheeses and vegetables in 1990; in 1992, the EU took over.

Not all member states approved. In northern Europe, such place-of-origin labeling did not exist. "The northerners don't have the same gastronomic traditions," says the INAO's Agns Payan in Paris. "And they were abusing our products." To dismay in Greece, for example, Danes produced the most feta cheese in Europe. But while real Greek feta comes from goat's milk, the Danish version is made with cow's milk.

Another concern was the imposition of "lowest common denominator" standards. In a recent battle over chocolate, Scandinavia and Britain pushed hard to allow vegetable fats, such as palm oil, to be used. "Real chocolate should only contain cocoa beans," retorts Belgian chocolatemaker Vincent de Clippelle.

But authentic products seem to be winning most of these food fights. The British will be forced to rename their chocolate. Raw-milk cheeses have been approved. Next year, the Danes will have to stop using the term "feta."

The EU "has helped protect us," says Mr. Bertozzi of the Parmesan consortium. "Before, anybody outside of Italy could abuse our product. Now they are breaking European law."

Perhaps the most bitter food trademark problems concern the United States. "The Americans call any fizzy white wine 'champagne,' any white wine 'Chablis,' and any red wine 'Burgundy,' " says Ms. Payan. "They must stop or we'll take legal action."

Her threats are serious. When Yves St. Laurent tried to name a perfume "Champagne," INAO sued and won the court case. It wants to take cases of American food-labeling violations to the World Trade Organization.

Not every product is protected. Camembert producers in France's Normandy region say only they make the "real" thing. But anybody can label cheese camembert - and varieties are produced as far away as China.

In the end, the test may come down to taste. Bertozzi cuts a chunk of real Parmesan, and Dutch "Parmesan" is placed alongside. The real Parmesan tastes tangy and sharp. The counterfeit is soft and bland. No one needs a label to know the difference.

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