As Defra renews its efforts to get more British producers to apply for protection under EU law to prevent British food names being used elsewhere, food writers are asking why the scheme, which has been in existence for nearly 20 years now, has never real caught on in Britain and whether this is evidence that we have little worth protecting in the UK. Based on the experience I gained from chairing a similar scheme for Slow Food I would like to put forward my own theory.
The principle that underscores the whole framework of Protected Food Names (PFNs) is that they belong to a defined geographical area because the food possesses characteristics that are attributable to that area, i.e. they would not taste the same if they were made elsewhere. The concept of terroir (and note that we do not have an English word for it) is well understood in relation to wines. The French appellation contrôllée (AOC) system has long applied to wines and more recently been extended to cheeses. Similar designations apply in Italy, Spain and Portugal.
I have absolutely no doubt that terroir has an influence on the character of raw ingredients. A native oyster from the Fal estuary will taste quite different to one that has grown in the Thames estuary. As we know with vineyards, terroir can be very localised, so that just as two neighbouring vineyards might produce grapes of differing qualities the same can be true for orchards. I find it fascinating to hear the explanations for these differences.
However, when we come to food that is produced from a number of raw ingredients, the whole thing gets much more complicated. Usually in these instances we are talking more about traditional knowledge and skills that may remain in an area long after the origins that gave rise to them have ceased to be relevant. Many of these geographical links were transport related. The Protected Geographical Indicator (PGI) category of the PFN scheme is designed for these situations. It allows for the raw ingredients to come from another area as long as at least one stage of the process is carried out in the designated area.
At this level I need far more convincing about the relevance of the geographical link. The people with traditional knowledge obviously can, and often do, move. In my view, the obsession that the French and Italians have with geography frequently obscures more important considerations. Let me give you an example from my Slow Food experience. At the last International Ark Commission meeting that I attended, my counterpart in Ireland brought up the issue of the Irish Blood Sausage. There are only about five butchers left in the whole of Ireland who are still making this with fresh blood whilst the rest use dried – usually imported (the situation is similar in Britain). Unfortunately as far as the geographical rules go these butchers were not conveniently clustered in one location but far flung across Ireland. At one time most people kept a pig or two and at slaughter time would collect the blood for making the sausage, so this has never been a speciality of just one area. “ Impossible” claimed the Italians. One of these producers must be known to make the best blood sausage, they could not all be identical. “ Not identical” was the reply, there are as many variations in recipe as there are makers, but those who have struggled to continue sourcing fresh blood are all producing an exceptional product made with care and the best was merely a matter of personal preference.
I won’t labour this story further; you hopefully already get the picture. The Italians would argue that this spice was more traditional than that, until one butcher, and thus one area, could be crowned King of the Blood Sausage.
There is a word in Italian, Campanilismo, which is used to describe someone whose view of life extends only to what can be seen from the top of the nearest Campanile (bell tower). The best of everything, they would claim, is contained within that parameter. The distinction between where someone lives and where they are from is a very important one to Italians. None of us can, of course, ever change where we were born, but none more so than an Italian! This is where they will return to when they die, whereas most of us in Britain will be buried near to where we end our days. I’m not saying that the Italian way is wrong, just different, but these cultural differences will affect the chances of success of a scheme like PFN. It needs not just the producers to buy into it, but everyone.
Around the time that European Legislation was passed to enable producers to protect food names, the European Union also funded an initiative called Euroterroirs. The aim of this was to compile an inventory of regional foods in every country of the European Union. This official inventory, compiled for Great Britain by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, was reproduced as a book Traditional Foods of Britain. In the introduction to the first edition they discuss the difficulties that the requirement to affix traditional foods with a regional tag caused. Something not anticipated was the hostility they encountered to the very idea of this sort of investigation. They point out that as early as the twelfth century, England has been more centrally governed than any other European state. Whilst it is perfectly possible to identify regional variations in cuisine, this important historical difference helps explain why they have long ceased to be very relevant to the British. Latterly the Second World War hammered the final nail into the coffin of “traditional foods” as almost every regional speciality went out of production at this time and following the long period of rationing, people were eager for something new rather than a return to the past.
However, something of the European mindset may have rubbed off over time. It is interesting to note that when Traditional Foods of Britain was first published, apart from an initial list of the contents by region, the main entries were categorised by food type rather than region. By 2006 sufficient interest had been generated for the book to be revised and republished by HarperCollins under the title of The Taste of Britain and this time the entries were organised by region. Yet whilst there has certainly been a resurgence of interest in British food, cookery books and restaurants focussing entirely on British dishes are still a minority and those that specialise in the cooking of just one region are even rarer.
Assurance of Quality
The other key aspect that the PFN scheme fails to deliver, at least as far as the British consumer is concerned, is any assurance of quality.
We Brits are lazy when it comes to asking questions about the provenance of our food – partly due to a lack of confidence about the answers we are looking for anyway. So a label, showing that someone else had done our homework for us, would appeal provided we believed it meant something.
Organic certification is currently the most important food label within the UK, but as time has gone on, its reputation has become tarnished and as soon as our pockets are hit, paying extra for an organic food label becomes one of the first thing to go. Whilst scientists may argue over whether organic food is better for your health than that grown by conventional farming methods there seems little doubt it is better for the planet. So why is this not enough to keep sales buoyant in troubled times? I believe that taste is the answer and unless and until people can really appreciate the difference in taste I think fine principles will not be sufficient to sustain a premium price.
So when I talk of quality assurance, it has to be a well rounded definition of quality (Slow food would define this as good, clean and fair) that actually produces a tangible difference in taste.
So far I have mentioned only the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) categories of the Protected Food Names scheme, but there is a third – Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG). This category is the only one that does not require a geographical link, and consequently, to the continental way of thinking, is the category of the lowest merit. So far the UK has only one product currently registered in the TSG category – Traditional Farmfresh Turkey. It seems to receive little coverage, even at this time of year, probably owing to its perceived lowly status in the world of PFNs, yet it appears to me to cover exactly the points that would be on my own checklist when buying a turkey. This article is supposed to be looking at PFNs generally, so does not permit a detailed excursion into Traditional Farmfresh Turkeys but for those who want to understand more, their 12- point Golden Promise standard is well worth looking at. For those who just want quick quality assurance, the Golden Promise label would do exactly that and the website – http://www.golden-promise.co.uk provides a list of stockists.
Without the emphasis on geographical link, TSGs concentrate instead on the aspects of production, be they ingredients to methodology, which define the traditional nature of a product.
One of the most useful aspects of any PFN registration is that it usually gets producers working together rather than against one another. My experience with Slow Food presidia has shown me that how effectively they do this is the single most significant factor in their success or otherwise.
Presidia share many of the characteristics of the PFN scheme. They are aimed at preserving historically significant products that are endangered by modern production and distribution methods. As with TSGs they begin with the definition of the critical aspects that define the traditional nature of the product. Where Presidia differ is that this protocol is heavily scrutinised to ensure quality, in terms of taste and sustainable, ethical production methods. Interestingly most Presidia also register as a PDO under the PFN scheme. My observation from products that are registered both under the PFN scheme and as a Slow Food presidium is that the former is always a much watered down version of the latter.
Let’s take Cheddar Cheese as an example. Slow Food has long championed the benefits of cheese made from raw milk. The problem with pasteurisation is that in addition to killing off harmful bacteria it also kills those that give the cheese its distinctive character. All of the world’s truly great cheeses are unpasteurised. Some of the other critical factors in traditional artisan production include the use of milk only from the farm’s own herd and the use of traditional animal rennet. To briefly explain the significance of these to quality, the quality of the cheese is inextricably linked to the quality of the milk and the feeding requirements to achieve the right milk might change on a daily basis, dependent largely upon the weather. It is hard to exercise this level of control if the milk is being produced elsewhere. Then there’s the matter of traditional animal rennet. Many cheese makers are reluctant to lose the potential of the vegetarian market, but the fact is that even natural (rather than chemical) vegetarian options impart their own, slightly bitter, taste. It might not concern a lot of people, but it is exactly in this way that the traditional characteristics of food become eroded over time.
So, with the Artisan Somerset Cheddar presidium there are only three producers but they in turn are part of the much larger West Country Farmhouse Cheddar PDO. The aim of a presidium is to persuade more producers to return to traditional production methods so that they can join up, it is not a protectionist measure. Whilst the presidium producers find merit in belonging to both schemes, citing the combined promotional power of the PDO as its main benefit, they freely admit that when it came down to agreeing the production standards for the PDO the lowest common denominator quickly became the rule. Whereas the presidium protocol had the opposite effect. I think every producer had to make some change to their existing methods, in some cases initially with a degree of reluctance, but eventually in complete agreement that they are all now making a better product. It is this commitment to continuous improvement, a healthy bit of competition between them whilst at the same time being able to work together under the banner of Artisan Somerset Cheddar that has made this particular presidium so successful. Crucially the protocol also provides an excellent tool for educating the public about the cheese.
So, for me, the lack of any indication of quality, remains a serious flaw in the PFN scheme. If we link this back to the importance attached to regionality, it could well be that other European countries perceive quality through a geographical link. Certainly this was the conclusion that Jamie Oliver appeared to reach at the end of his Italian tour where he had been frustrated by the Italians lack of readiness to try any variation on the recipe that had been handed down through the generations.
However, the quality assurance that is meant to come with appellation contrôllée or its equivalents in the wine world has already been questioned and tested. The rise of the so-called Super Tuscans, which led to revisions in the criteria for the Chianti DOCG amongst others, is perhaps the best known example. Writing in Decanter magazine last year, Maggie Rosen provided another example when she reported that sparkling wine sales in the UK had grown exponentially in recent years, outpacing Champagne in volume growth. She cites research from Mintel, which showed sparkling wine sales up 44% by volume since 2002 compared with a 24% increase in Champagne sales.
However so far, most of the PDOs that have been registered in Britain appear to have had protectionism as their main aim and the numbers of anomalies that this throws up in terms of any meaningful quality indicator are legion. For example, some may remember a whole episode of Lenny Henry’s sitcom Chef that was devoted to discovering some hidden away, illegally produced, unpasteurised version of Stilton since the PDO itself had ruled that henceforth only pasteurised cheese could be called Stilton. There is now however an unpasteurised Stilton in all but name. Because it cannot be called Stilton it goes by the old name for the town, Stichelton. Now all that remains to be seen is whether the quality of the unpasteurised version will tempt Stilton producers either to review their PDO classification (not an easy task) or jump ship and begin making Stichelton themselves!
Other cheese examples that highlight the problems in the PFN scheme: firstly Single Gloucester Cheese, which actually stipulates only that the producer must own a herd of Gloucester Cattle, not, as most people would interpret, that they have to use the milk for making the cheese. That loophole has been well used. Then there is Beacon Fell Traditional Lancashire Cheese. Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire is widely regarded to be a far superior (and more authentic) example of Lancashire cheese, yet because of the geographical limitation claimed by Beacon Fell, would not qualify to join this particular PDO.
So, can a Protected Food Name help British Producers?
To return to the question this article was aiming to answer, I guess I am saying a qualified “yes” – the scheme could help British producers. The qualification relates to the extent to which producers and those promoting the scheme are prepared to approach it as a vehicle that can improve quality and help educate consumers about why this is worth paying more for.
This qualification is however a big one, because I know I am at odds here with Irene Bocchetta, who has responsibility for promoting the PFN scheme in Britain, and who disagrees that quality should be the issue. PFNs are, she maintains, about understanding our food history. That is a desire that I can readily support, but still question whether it will be sufficient to ensure its success in Britain. The value of a good story has long been recognised by the marketing people, and for farmers to survive they need to develop some of this marketing know-how. But do we really want to reduce the potential of the scheme to just a marketing tool? I think producers owe it to one another to put some more substance behind it.