When it comes to its artisanal food future, Europe has yet to find its sweet spot
As the EU and Australia hash out the details of a new free trade agreement, a surprising sticking point has emerged. The EU has requested that Australian cheesemakers stop using a set of 56 geographic indicators, including well-known names such as feta and gruyere.
Australian cheese producers will not be the only ones hit by the proposed changes: if the EU has its way, Australian manufacturers will be banned from using the names of 172 foods and 236 beverages. With Europe making this a “non-negotiable” part of the free trade talks, Australian producers have warned that their budgets will be strained and that they may be forced to cut jobs.
Different notions of protecting cultural heritage
The debate has centred around cultural arguments on both sides. Europe has long cherished its food heritage, and classified the continent’s traditional products like prosciutto and prosecco under geographic origin labels as a way to protect them. Such location-based labels allow farmers and producers to preserve culturally significant products and their reputations.
Prosciutto di Parma, for example, which was first mentioned by historians in 100 BC, has to meet extremely strict rules to bear the world-renowned name. The ham must be cured at least 12 months and must come from Duroc, Large White, or Landrace breeds of pigs which feasted on whey left-over from parmesan production and lived no less than five kilometres south of the via Emilia. Producers who meet these stringent criteria have fought vigorously to defend the system of origin labels, insisting that they serve as a mark of quality and protect the product from inferior imitations.
Australian producers, on the other hand, argue that no longer being able to use these easily recognisable names for their products ignores their sense that they are carrying out their European ancestors’ culinary traditions. Australian-born cheesemonger Mauru Montalto, says his Italian grandfather’s migration to Australia in the 1950s forms an irreversible part of his identity as a producer.
“I do acknowledge I am Australian born, but I am certainly proud of my Italian heritage,” Montalto commented, “if someone questioned me and said you are not an Italian cheesemaker, I would ask, well, what am I then? Because it is my identity, I know it inside out, back to front, it is something I have done almost all [my] life.”
This ongoing battle over naming is only the latest indication of how deeply Europeans consider gastronomy to be a part of their cultural fabric. Indeed, the EU already has some experience in dealing with international culinary competition. Last year, a dispute over the use of the manchego label, Spain’s famous sheep’s milk cheese, delayed a major trade deal with Mexico for months. It wasn’t until a European Court of Justice ruling in favour of Spanish cheesemakers that a deal was reached, allowing 99% of goods traded between Mexico and the bloc to be exchanged on a tariff-free basis.
There is certainly an argument to be made for protecting the artisanal ways of making food products; the traditions that make up European food culture should not be dismissed in favour of cheaper, or more rapidly produced, alternatives. Indeed, Europe’s “disappearing local food heritage” has already been the subject of much debate, not to mention creative inspiration—last year, cultural organisations from all around Europe banded together to create a multimedia artwork celebrating European gastronomy.
At the same time, an overly restrictive approach to artisanal traditions may cramp avenues of innovation that offer a healthy mixture of respecting European cultural heritage while catering to modern tastes and diets. Eastern European dairy producer Food Union, for example, backed by Hong Kong-headquartered investment firm Meridian Capital Limited to invest serious research and development efforts into finding the right balance between local traditions, high-quality ingredients sourced from hundreds of farms across Europe, and responding to consumers’ evolving tastes.
As Food Union CEO Andrey Beskhmelnitsy explained, each country the dairy company is implanted in—major markets include the Baltics, Denmark, Norway, and Romania, as well as China—has its own particular character, and respecting this national food identity while still staying on-trend is one of the biggest challenges for any European food producer.
Take Latvia as one example. While Food Union still manufactures heritage ice cream brand Pols’ products with the original recipe from 1971, the dairy giant has also rolled out a number of new Pols flavours and inaugurated a so-called “guilt-free” ice cream line with gourmet flavours and fewer calories. From a pink Pols bubble-gum flavour to green pistachio ice cream, Food Union has been careful to walk the line between tradition and innovation.
Nor is Food Union the only European producer putting a new spin on old treats. In 2017, Swiss chocolatier Barry Callebaut crafted the first new variety of chocolate in 80 years: a pink-hued “ruby chocolate” specially marketed for the Instagram generation.
Ruby chocolate can be identified by its fruity taste reminiscent of red berries and a “distinct colour” distinguishing it from its relatively archaic predecessors Dark, Milk and White. It is produced from the rare Ruby cocoa bean—primarily found in Brazil, Ecuador and the Ivory Coast— and is the result of years of testing. The Swiss firm said it was designed to satisfy millennials’ penchant for “hedonistic indulgence.” Craft chocolatiers were, predictably, up in arms over the invention, arguing that it went “against everything they hold true and dear”.
Europe’s gastronomic heritage is no less important today than it was a century ago, and maintaining geographic origin labels ensures that French champagne and prosciutto di Parma continue to be marks of quality. That said, the fact that European producers are dedicated to updating old classics and globally cherished culinary delights is a promising sign that Europe is staking out its place in developing the treasured flavours of the future.