Are You Eating the “Real” Thing?

There's a French word making its way through the culinary scene: terroir, meaning the land or "a sense of place." It often appears in the context of wine; however, it also pertains to certain foods. After all, food can have as strong a sense of place as geography.

Another word is making the rounds: real, often in reference to an ingredient (for instance, "made with real sugar," "… real cheese," "…real milk") among a list of those unfamiliar to the general consumer. But as we become a nation of global flavors, "real" is taking on a more culturally significant meaning.

Protected Designation of Origin identifies agricultural foods to a region, type of production and sense of place that is discernible (its terroir). The European Union established PDO designation to distinguish authentic products — usually cheeses, olives, yogurt, wine or meat — from less expensive knock-offs.

For example:

  • Balsamic vinegar is made in the city of Modena, Italy. Cooked from the juice of freshly crushed grapes grown in specific vineyards, real balsamic vinegar contains no added aromatic substances (such as caramel color).
  • Feta cheese hails from mainland Greece and the island of Lesbos, and is produced by traditional methods using sheep or goat's milk.
  • Kalamata olives are produced in Messinia at Southern Peloponnesus areas of Greece, where these purple-black, powerful and juicy olives are cured in sea-salt brine and immersed in wine vinegar.

Like a patent or trademark, PDO is designed to prevent exploitation. And by safeguarding the livelihoods of artisans who preserve traditions developed centuries ago by their ancestors, PDO can help entire communities to stay settled in rural areas.

While many countries have agreements to uphold PDO designation, the United States is not one of them. That means in England or France, for instance, when you buy Parmesan cheese, you get Parmigiana-Reggiano produced in the Italian region of Reggio Emilia, made from milk drawn only in the morning and evening from cows that feed on local forage, and aged for 18 months. In the U.S., "parmesan" includes that which comes in the recognizable green cylinder and bears little resemblance to the real deal.

Does it matter? Many consumers may not mind whether they are buying real Prosciutto or Gorgonzola. Because PDO foods are not factory-produced, they often come at a premium far out of most household budgets. The designation is controversial even among European regions it seeks to protect, with many arguments about authenticity and market monopolies tied up in courts.

On the other hand, many argue that more awareness of the people and traditions behind celebrated foods would be a good thing.

Jill Melton
Jill Melton, MS, RD, is editor and founder of Edible Nashville Magazine.