The uniqueness of origin
Labels identifying origin make products more exclusive. Producers of Gruyère cheese joined forces in 1992 – and it’s paid off.
While the concept of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée was for a long time confined to the countries around the Mediterranean, it was in relation to wines that the initials AOC became synonymous with quality assurance, first in the rest of Europe, and then North America. Certain AOC-labelled products with an international reputation, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Parma ham, Roquefort and Gorgonzola, went on to contribute to the fame of the seal in conjunction with non-wine products on an even more global scale.
The increasing number of labels on the market that identify a product’s origin has come about partly as a result of the demands of consumers, who are increasingly mindful of what their food contains and where it comes from; but also as a result of the quest for greater diversity and authenticity, which favours produits de terroir (traditional or local foods with a strong sense of identity). Initially devised to protect the names of reputed products from misuse, particularly in the wine industry, labels identifying a product’s origin gradually came to be perceived as instruments for guaranteeing the quality of products and fostering rural development.
The primary argument in favour of acknowledging labels certifying a product’s origin is to encourage diversity in what is being offered. Indeed, if we want to safeguard produits de terroir, it is necessary to ensure that certain of their features are preserved, and this goes against the process that is seeing the standardisation of resources, products and tastes. More acidic fruits (Corsican clementines), potent cheeses with farmyard flavours (Munster, Pecorino, Roquefort) and high-fat products (lardo di Colonnata) are all interesting alternatives to industrial products that typically defuse flavours and focus on health needs.
Due to the deteriorating quality of the famous Gruyère cheese, milk producers, cheese-makers and affineurs in Switzerland took a stand by creating the Gruyère Charter in 1992. It triggered a movement that led to the name's protection in 2001. The adoption of strict specifications, coupled with an ongoing dialogue between those involved in the production chain bore fruit: sales rose by almost 50 per cent within ten years.
Today, AOC labels also aim to re-establish links between consumers and producers
Social and geographical distances between urban and rural populations are growing, in particular with the globalisation of international trade. In this context, the labels identifying a product’s origin contribute to reinforcing the position of produits de terroirs, which echoes the “consume local food” trend, but also makes it possible to commercialise products whose quality is appreciated on more remote markets.
For producers, labels of origin are also a way to break away from agricultural worker status under the thumb of large-scale retailers, and to become active in communities striving to offer quality products. While many industries aiming at offering products with certified provenance bow to the logic dictated by economics, for others the pride of being recognised as “artisans of taste” and heirs to ancestral traditions takes precedence. Labels identifying origin are therefore an indication that artisans’ skills and savoir-faire are appreciated and consecrated.
Beyond the diversity provided by thousands of designations of origin, each product is the nuanced result of manufacturing processes, and conditions specific to the location, which can change from year to year. Within any one certified label of origin, there are sub-regions, and in each of these, different producers have their own know-how, which might vary slightly. Each product is therefore unique. Out of this uniqueness comes a feeling, which oscillates between the playfulness and pleasure experienced by connoisseurs when they taste a new cheese, ham, brandy, or wine – whether an exceptional Bordeaux vintage, or a less refined wine that has nonetheless managed to maintain its typicity. The pleasure of discovering, and the ensuing game of comparisons – identifying kinships with other products, distinguishing flavours and aromas – heightens the attention paid to taste.
The quest for products with specific, “typical” characteristics also applies to the discovery of new products. Southern countries that have often exported their produce to production sites in the North, in the form of raw materials not considered of great value, see the AOC seal as an instrument that will enable them to control quality more closely. In turn it allows agricultural producers to hope for greater profits. Ecuador is home to a variety of cocoa known as “Nacional” (or “Criollo”) that has the unusual trait of fermenting very quickly; this lends it a floral aroma and fruity taste – a quality which is recognised today thanks to the “Cacao Arriba” label of origin. Many leading European chocolate-makers have in recent years developed ranges, called “Origins”, “Terroirs” or “Grands Crus”, that highlight the specificities of cocoa from different origins. By alerting the consumer to this diversity, they make it possible to stop these cocoas from being mixed with lower-quality cocoas, thereby losing their specific quality. To some extent, this process has also helped planters to increase their income.
Often associated with traditional forms of production, products with a label certifying their origin are arousing growing interest from the food industry, which tends to subdivide what it offers, breaking it down into “budget”, “bio” and “premium” lines. Furthermore, it is becoming more and more common to see environmental or social responsibility labels on industrial and large-scale retailers’ products. Labels of origin are perfectly in line with this strategy of differentiating products, but the involvement of large groups sometimes is accompanied by compromises related to the specific quality of products so as to better accommodate the logic dictated by large-scale retailers. Thwarted by the competent authorities, the attempt by industrial groups to assert the production of Camembert de Normandie with pasteurised milk is an example of the threat looming over labels of origin. Time will tell whether public authorities, guardians of the credibility of certified labels of origin, will continue to back them. Besides safeguarding the heritage of traditional savoir-faire and typical products, this initiative contributes to protecting a diversity of tastes that allows us, as eaters, to stimulate and satisfy our taste buds.