Stamps. Tradition. Standards. Designer Products.
This week’s blog post is all about the four words above. That’s right. Ok, five words. (I said I knew about cheese, not how to count.)
When you think about different types of cheeses, there are certain flavor profiles that are associated with them. A manchego is going to be salty, nutty, and buttery. A Saint-Nectaire is going to be a gray little tomme that tastes like the vegetal nether regions of a mushroom that you found on the slope of a volcano. A comte is going to be nutty with hints of berries and shallots and come in 80 lb. wheels.
But why? Why do these cheeses always taste the same? How do people know what they taste like? It’s not like they just magically taste that way. They are made by human beings with independent thoughts and ideas who believe variety is the spice of life and want things to taste new and exciting! So how come the order of Vacherin Mont D’Or we got in December of 2009 tastes just like the Vacherin Mont D’Or we got in December of 2010? WHY, I ASK YOU? WHY?
I can tell you my, children. So pull up your toadstools and listen. The answer is simple and can be summed up in one word. More like an idea. More like a state of mind and being: Appellation.
Simply defined, appellation is a protected and defined geographical area. Some areas are big…some are small, but the point is marking out areas where climate and soil are consistent. It was thought up by the French (those dastardly devils invent every damn thing that is food and drink centered. OVER IT.) all the way back in the 15th century with the invention of a little cheese product I like to call Roquefort. The French love Roquefort.
Exactly (ignore that this guy is not speaking French….). European visitors come into our shop all the time and ask for it. They know it’s going to taste the same…spicy, fruity, wooly, with a white paste mottled with green holes. People go crazy for it. Anyways, the story goes that way back to the 1400′s when Charles VI granted the people of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, in the south of France, a total monopoly on the production of roquefort. No one else could make it anywhere else. They could try…but they’d probably be decapitated. Or impaled. Or forced to listen to the new Taylor Swift album.
When the Law for the Protection of the Place of Origin was passed by the French Ministry of Agriculture in 1919, Roquefort was the first cheese to be monitored and controlled by this new set of super strict French standards. The first “Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC)” was created. Originally used as a way to control superior production of wine products, eventually cheese, olive oil, butter, even lavender was dragged into the ring. So, if you are eating an AOC cheese, you know it is always going to come from a specific region that grows the same types of grasses and herbs due to the specific soil composition and climate. It’s going to be produced by specific animals that are bred and raised in that area and eat said flora. It’s going to be produced in the same way, so that it generally tastes the same every time.
That’s why when you drink champagne, you know it comes from that one tiny region in France called Champagne. Everything else is sparkling wine, or cava, or prosecco, or some other technically different entity. It’s basically a production copyright for food and wine. You can make something that tastes exactly the same from somewhere else, but you can’t mark it with its government protected name. So there, you phonies.
Today, there are 42 cheeses that display the AOC stamp. Lots of other countries also have their own version of AOC. In Spain, you have Denominación de Origen (DO). In Italy, you have Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC). The European Union even has one… Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), of which there are a number of variations. It’s the newest craze! It’s hot, like…LED grills in Japan!
One, these countries want to guarantee quality control. Like I said earlier, the French go bananas over roquefort. Could you imagine the riots that would take place if Roquefort changed? It would be like locking the cast of Jersey Shore in a room with a case of 4 Loko and then releasing them into an Ed Hardy store that is holding a casting call for the Bad Girls Club. (I may or may not be addicted to reality TV). People like consistency. They like tasting something and drifting off down memory lane and thinking about that summer when they were 16 they first tasted roquefort and then discovered how fun it is to try and beer bong an entire box of Franzia at once (it doesn’t work. Trust me.). These countries take great national pride in these products, and they want to make sure that when they are shipped all over the world, they represent (to the upmost standard!) the places they come from and the people who produced them. Sure, there are other sheep’s milk blues that come from France. Some of them taste almost identical to Roquefort…but they sure as hell aren’t Roquefort.
The other reason for applying AOC status (or the variety of other stamps you can toss around) is to guarantee that people who have spent generations producing these high-quality products a consistent livelihood that will last into the future.
Farmers & cheese producers are not financially rich people. But they are determined and great people. There is a lot of struggling those goes along with producing food – especially if you are dependent on weather and animals. Imagine if AOC didn’t exist and some doofus business man…
…came along and realized that he could just start using machines and corn-fed, industry style sheep, and weird chemical flavor packets to produce cheese that tastes just like Roquefort. For a fraction of the price. He would put out all of the traditional sheep farmers and cheese producers out of business. Luckily, we live in a world where if a farmer wants to be a farmer (in Europe…don’t get me started about how ridiculous it is that the American government does absolutely nothing to protect small American farmers…) they are going to be protected by the government. And as a result, we get delicious cheese that tastes the same now as when my great grandpappy was on his Eurotrip back in the 1800′s! That’s cool! You are eating history and tasting the hard work of happy people producing product that they are proud of.
Yes, often AOC cheeses are more expensive than others. But not always. And when you come into the Bedford Cheese Shop and see that we have cheeses for $47 a pound, you know that not only are you allowing small business to flourish, you are also allowing farmers to make more cheese for you to enjoy in the future. So, good job, you!
So that’s that. AOC. Name protection. Just like the bejeweled “Juicy” that is marked on all those velour tracksuits. That way, you know it’ll stretch to fit just right as you pad around in your UGGs and sip your new “Trenta” size apple pie Frappucino.
Thanks for reading! Also, I’m trying to do some research on Latin American cheeses. Does anyone know about this? There is absolutely no information about cheese from Latin America, except for one article about a dairy in Ecuador that was featured in Culture Magazine a year and a half ago.
Help a brother out…/ No Comments