It’s time to declare war on terroir

Banning anyone outside Cornwall from making Cornish pasties promises to crimp the life out of food culture.

In March, both the Cornish pasty and the Cumberland sausage were awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the European Union, the forty-third and forty-fourth British food products respectively to be conferred the award. Put simply, this means that pasties made anywhere other than Cornwall can no longer be called ‘Cornish’, and sausages made outside of Cumbria can no longer called ‘Cumberland’, regardless of how alike they might be to their Cornish and Cumberland cousins.

Both the humble pasty and sausage follow in the footsteps of hundreds of other food items throughout the European Union to receive PGI status, and take their place among the elite of foodstuffs alongside champagne, Parmesan cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies to name just a few. But is this something food lovers should celebrate or should we be wary of the rush to confer special status on an increasing number of food products?

Protected Geographical Indication, argue the EU and those producers conferred with the award, guarantees the heritage, quality and authenticity of a food product, thus allowing the consumer to be sure they are buying the ‘real thing’, made to a centrally agreed recipe or method, and originating from an agreed area or region. The PGI badge, and the other two legal frameworks within European law – Protected Geographical Status (PGS) and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) – were established in 1993 to allow producers to maximise profits and thrive in a competitive globalised food market. In turn, the argument goes, this will prevent a standardisation of food stuffs. Under this system, a named food product registered within these schemes will be given legal protection against imitation throughout the EU.

One of the arguments made by the recent British recipients of PGI status is that it is good for business, encouraging demand for a product at, more often than not, a premium price. With an officially imposed monopoly, it is easy to see why the butchers of Cumbria and pasty crimpers of Cornwall are pleased with their recently won status. The best way to generate increased product sales is to turn something common into something unique or rare, somehow more ‘authentic’ than its identical cousin made just a few miles down the road. Foodies – of which I confess I am one – will flock to the product in search of new or authentic experiences.

Yet it feels rather strange to be applying these rules to pasties and pies. In the UK, we’re accustomed to PGI/PDO status being conferred on foreign foodstuffs, as the French and Italians have been both the instigators of – and quickest to make use of – the EU framework. But it’s one thing paying over the odds for something exotic; whether we‘ll be prepared to pay more for that lunchtime pasty because of its new, exalted position is a moot point.

There are critics of the protected food-status system, with some arguing that the system is prone to being abused by big producers who are capable of adhering to the letter of the law, if not the spirit, or that membership of such schemes increases costs for both producers and consumers. Perhaps more pertinent is the charge that conferring protected status on a food or drink excludes other producers who might be able to produce the same thing elsewhere, to an equal standard or at a lower costs. Without doubt, the EU’s protected-food status is straightforward economic protectionism, cloaked in the guise of helping the small artisan food producer, of whom everyone apparently seems to approve.

I hope that enterprising producers will find inventive ways around the newly imposed restrictions. Greggs, the ubiquitous British high street bakers, sells millions of Cornish pasties a year, none of which are actually produced in Cornwall. Their response to the new pasty rules has been to run a campaign to find a new title for their Cornish pasty-type product. Other producers simply make good use of the English language, as can be seen when supermarkets sell ‘Greek-style yogurt’, which simply bypasses the EU rules by not claiming to be actually Greek, and means they don’t need to relocate their yogurt factories there. I have no doubt that an enterprising pasty producer in Devon can make the Devon Pasty an object of desire, too.

It’s true that when we buy a product, we expect the name of the product to reflect our understanding of it and, to that extent, product descriptions are important. We don’t want to buy a product to find it’s a pale imitation of what we thought we were purchasing. But what stands out in the discussion about protected status, and which is enshrined in the legislation, is the issue of ‘authenticity’. How important is it that the chunk of blue cheese I might eat called Gorgonzola is actually produced in the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy, or that a dollop of clotted cream on my scone is bona fide Cornish, or that my hand-raised, hot-water-crust pork pie is from the Leicestershire market town of Melton Mowbray? There is nothing about the production of these products in these places which makes them better than the same product produced elsewhere or to a slightly different recipe.

Compare this with cheddar, a cheese that originates in the south-west English town of Cheddar, that was refused protected status. The result is that we can carry on enjoying the many hundreds of varieties of cheddar made all over the world, with their different qualities and flavours, free from these ridiculous EU rules. People who really like their cheese soon find which varieties or brands of cheddar they particularly enjoy.

PGI status also prevents foods from changing and developing. For example, the Cornwall Development Company, the economic development company for the county, had to come up with the ‘genuine’ Cornish pasty recipe as part of its application for protected status. An authentic pasty, says the recipe, should have a distinctive ‘D’ shape and be crimped on one side (never on top); the filling should be ‘chunky, made up of uncooked mince or chunks of beef with swede, potato and onion and a light seasoning’; and, finally, the pasty should be slow baked.

But this surely makes a mockery of the whole notion of terroir, the French term originally used in relation to wine, but increasingly extended to other food products, which suggests that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place can bestow certain unique qualities of taste. This is the ‘authentic’ quality that modern foodies seek. But given that the EU rules do not distinguish between the type of producer, in practice this means that they do not distinguish between a Cornish pasty hand-produced by a small artisan baker or mass-produced in the giant Ginster’s factory in Callington, Cornwall. Are we supposed to believe that the Ginster’s factory imparts a special je ne sais quoi?

The new protection afforded the Cornish pasty is a blatant piece of protectionism demanded by a few producers in one English county. But the rush to promote protected status on an increasing number of food items across the EU implicitly promotes the idea of ‘authenticity’ in food to a willing society of cosmopolitan eaters in search of some meaning to their food consumption and, one assumes, their lives. Protected food status also implicitly, if not in practice, elevates the small producer above the large, buying into the cultural trend of a rejection of mass-produced food, made for a national or international market, in celebration of the small-scale and local. To me, this seems like a backward step. If something’s worth eating, it’s worth the whole world being able to make it and eat it.

If protected food status were to guarantee that every pasty I eat would be delicious, then perhaps – just possibly - it might have some merit. But it doesn’t and, more worryingly, the search for authenticity in food seeks to ossify that product in a particular time and place. If we accept that a food product can only originate from a specific place, or be made to a single ‘authentic’ recipe, we deny it the opportunity to go out and mingle, flirt with other food cultures and ideas, and perhaps produce something altogether new and exciting and tasty.

Justine Brian is national co-ordinator of the UK schools debating competition, Debating Matters.

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