As I think I’ve made astoundingly clear over the last two years, I’m a great lover of Italy and, more specifically, Italian food. The thing that I love about Italian food, which sets it apart from other cuisines for me, is the way it respects and celebrates produce. You very rarely sit down to a complex Italian dish. A typical Italian plate of food is simplicity at its best. Few ingredients, simply cooked, allowing the intrinsic qualities and flavours shine. In fact, when I’m in Italy, which I try to be as often as possible (roll on June and Puglia, whoop whoop), my absolute favourite meal is the lunch we serve every day, no cooking required, only beautiful local produce. Just bread, the most beautiful red ripe beef tomatoes, a selection of cheeses and (my own personal heroin) prosciutto, all served with an ice-cold beer. So, when I was approached by Consortium of Prosciutto di San Daniele and Consortium of Grana Padano Cheese to be ambassador for these two iconic Italian products, it wasn’t a hard sell.
Prosciutto di San Daniele and Grana Padano Cheese are some of the oldest and most distinctive products in Italy, having been produced by the same traditional methods for tens of centuries. Their special characteristics, intrinsic to the environment and people who produce them, have enabled them to be named as Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) products. PDO products are goods that are protected by the European Union for their high quality, authenticity and traceability. This EU designation is only awarded to products that come from a strictly defined geographical area and are produced using distinctive processing techniques steeped in the history, knowledge and tradition of that particular area. This means, for example, that only prosciutto produced in the area of San Danielle del Friuli, that follow the traditional production protocols, and meat the strictest quality guidelines for appearance, aroma, texture and taste can be labelled and sold as Prosciutto di San Daniele.
Considering our current obsession with provenance, I really think PDO is a (rare) example of EU bureaucracy doing something good and worthwhile. It (as we all should) places the highest value on traceability, authenticity and quality products, and protects both the producer and the consumer against imitations and fraud. This means that when you see the PDO logo, you can feel assured that the product you are buying has been checked at every stage of production, from farm to packet, to the strictest of criteria, including:
- clear boundaries of geographical area of both the products and the raw materials, which means that the milk for the Grana Padano Cheese is from the same region that it is produced in for example (good for food miles as well as provenance)
- production methods follow the traditional recipe
- clear labels indicating where and when the products were produced
- quality and authenticity certification by independent and neutral accredited certifying bodies
- high quality in look, aroma, taste, etc.
You might ask why the EU feels it’s necessary to meddle in these matters, but when you consider the culinary history and contribution that has been made all over Europe, you begin to appreciate the importance of protecting the heritage of our particular goods. Think about poor old Cheddar, the most popular cheese in the UK by a country mile (and second most popular in the US). Although it originates from the village of Cheddar in Somerset, where Cheddar Gorge on the edge of the village provided the ideal humidity and constant temperature for maturing the cheese, the name and production had become so widespread by the time PDO was established that it was deemed ineligible for PDO status. So any Tom, Dick or Harry can make a similar cheese and call it Cheddar. Real, original, authentic Cheddar had to make do with a PDO recognition for ”West Country farmhouse Cheddar cheese” instead. So, when you think you’re buying a UK-originated cheese, you’re often getting something produced in New Zealand or the US.
Whilst it’s unrealistic to start checking the label of every product you buy, seeing the PDO label guarantees, at a glance, that you are getting the genuine article. This is important for three main reasons:
1) Product Specificity: The product you’re buying became famous and desirable because of its unique characteristics, which are intrinsically linked to the place and people who produced it. Making sure that the product is always produced in the same geographical region and by the same methods means that you maintain the unique character of that product.
2) Product Protection: As I mentioned above, it is important to protect celebrated and superior goods from imitation and fraud. Giving a product PDO status means that producers that maintain the highest standards of quality and production are rewarded with a fair market price, and consumers are rewarded with a high-quality product. Without PDO status, lower quality imitators could erode the quality and drive down the value of the products.
3) Product Quality: As part of the PDO scheme, recognised products must respect the production specifications and are inspected by external neutral certifying bodies at every stage of production. So, the PDO label guarantees that the production, processing, and preparation of the food has been certified and represents the highest quality.
So PDO. It’s a bit of alright, actually.
This post was sponsored by Consortium of Prosciutto di San Daniele and Consortium of Grana Padano Cheese, but the article and sentiments are my own. Photos kindly supplied by the Consortiums.