04 February 2010

Auntie Pasta: PDO, DOP et al

THE ITALIANS have fought long and hard to keep their regional and local food specialties as far away from the control of the European Union as possible. The strict European food rules and regulations scared the bejeebers out of them. As it turns out, they may have lost the battle but they won the war.

It is indeed difficult to explain to non-Italians how cheese and pork aged in caves, and beef hung to dry in the open air with nary a stainless steel refrigerator with automatic temperature control in sight, is a good thing.

Many a visitor has commented on the fact that eggs are not refrigerated in the stores, and that ham (prosciutto cotto and crudo), and salami of every type just sit on a shelf behind the deli counter waiting to be sold. It can be unnerving if you come from a pre-portioned, shrink wrapped, temperature controlled world.

But things are different here, and food is so much a part of this culture I have to think they know what they are doing. I remember a restaurant owner in Santa Margherita Ligure complaining about a EU directive banning restaurateurs from buying and serving trofie (squiggly little pasta) made by local housewives.

“We have been eating trofie with pesto made in the kitchens of our mothers and grandmothers for more than 500 years, and now strangers from Brussels are telling us they are not good enough? I don’t think they even know what trofie are,” he said.

The issue was that the local kitchens didn’t meet the sanitary standards of the European Union. Not that they weren’t clean, there were, but the sinks were not stainless steel and the walls were not completely tiled. The war was on.

But that was in the mid 1990’s. Since then the wily Italians have managed to woo over the hard-nosed members the European Unions Food Commission. The EU now recognizes the unique quality of many foods produced in Europe and Italy has more food products on that list than any other country.

At last count there were 167 Italian products on the EU’s honor roll, earning not just the coveted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), and the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), but also the Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) label.

The labels are important because they serve to protect the genuine Italian products from inferior clones. For example, Chinese cheese sold as Pamasan is not the same thing as Parmesan Cheese from Parma, Italy. Not even close.

Here are just a few of the most recent Italian food products that have won the EU’s heart and earned the highest seals of approval:

• salame from S. Angelo Di Brolo, province of Messina
• salame from Cremona, province of Lombardy
• prized sweet chestnuts from Cuneo, province of Piedmont
• white asparagus native to the Bassano area north of Venice
• hazelnuts and chestnuts from Viterbo, just north of Rome
• olives from Ascoli, province of the Marche
• apples from Italy’s northern Val di Non region.
• chestnuts from Rieti, province of Lazio
• olive oil from Tuscia, in northern Lazio
• goose salame from Mortara, province of Lombardy
• basil from Genoa, used to make Genoa’s world-famous pesto sauce
• ricotta cheese from Rome
• saffron from l’Aquila in Abruzzo and San Gimignano in Tuscany
• lardo from Colonnata, near Massa in Tuscany (See: On the Road with Auntie Pasta, posted Dec. 2, 2009)
• honey from the Lunigiana region of northern Tuscany
• Roman lamb, the famed abbacchio of Rome
• Goose salame from Mortara, near Pavia, province of Lombardy
• prickly pears from Mt. Etna area in Sicily
• Pachino tomatoes from Sicily
• buffalo mozzarella from the area around Naples
• Pizza Margherita from Naples
• artichokes from the Ancient Greek site at Paestum, south of Naples

Some other food acronyms you will find on Italian products are:

DOP – denominazione di origine protetta, or Protected Geographical Status. It ensures that the product genuinely originates in a specific region.
DOPG - the same as above but guaranteed.
IGP – Indicazione geografica protetta, Protected Geographica Area and is your guarantee that the product comes from a specific area.
STG – Specialita’ tradizionale garantita, guarantees a specific traditional production process.
Unlike DOP and IGP, traditional foods must have originated in a specific area, like the salame from S. Angelo Di Brolo in the province of Messina, not just produced there.

There are actually quite a few more categories but I think this is getting to be TMI, (too much information) and besides all this food talk is making me hungry, so I’ll save the rest of the list for another day.

Photos: Honey from Tuscany; Culatello salami of Parma; Cheese from Lombardy. All recognized by the EU as unique Italian food products.

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