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Food Court

The European Union has judged hundreds of traditional foods to be national treasures. Here's why cooks are celebrating.

I was in Naples, Italy, last November, eating my favorite Neapolitan food (pizza--did you really have to ask?), when I heard startling news: if the mayor of this delightfully anarchic town has his way, tens of thousands of pizzerias all over Europe might be changing their menus, if not their very names. Mayor Antonio Bassolino, it seems, has petitioned the Italian government, and thereby the European Union, for controlled-name status for Neapolitan pizza.

Now, I need no convincing that the best pizza in the whole wide world comes from Naples, but much as I love it, I can happily make do with Neapolitan pizza from New Haven, Chicago, even Naples, Maine. But if Bassolino is successful, the only pizzas that can legally be called pizza napoletana will be those from Naples, Italy--made with Neapolitan flour, Neapolitan yeast and Neapolitan water and baked in a Neapolitan wood-fired oven. For the rest of the world, "flat bread in the Neapolitan style" may become the accepted name. Somehow, it doesn't have the same ring to it.

While it seems silly to legislate the definition of pizza, what's happening in Naples is a very small part of an important European movement to protect traditional foods from the galloping globalism that threatens the entire world of food and wine. And for that reason alone, I'm all for it, even though the movement sometimes comes off as ridiculous.

The issue at hand is the coveted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), as the European Union clumsily refers to it. Currently the European Union recognizes more than 500 foods and beverages as worthy of this rare status and more are added constantly. What all these products have in common is the official recognition that something about them is inherently special and inimitable and that attempts to duplicate them elsewhere or to change the way they're produced should be prevented by law.

Exactly what makes a food deserving of protected status was spelled out for me by Denis Richard, export director of Société Roquefort, when I stopped for lunch in the cheese-obsessed village of Roquefort in France last September: terroir, matière première, savoir-faire and tradition. The first two requisites are easy to control--terroir, the region where the product is made and the soil in which it grows, and matière première, the raw materials from which it's created, whether milk, meat, sweet chile peppers, olives, honey or fragrant lavender. But savoir-faire--knowing how to do something, to translate the term literally--and tradition, the knowledge and sensibility built up over generations, these are much more difficult to define.

In other words, you can't make just any old cheese and call it Roquefort. You can't even make a sheep's milk cheese, inject it with Penicillium roqueforti mold and call it Roquefort. Only a cheese made from the milk of the Lacaune sheep native to the Massif Central in France, injected with blue penicillin cultured from moldy rye bread in the village of Roquefort and then aged a specified number of weeks in the Cambalou Caves that honeycomb the region, only that cheese may be designated Roquefort. And the controlled-name status has the force of law around the world.

This concept has been familiar to wine lovers for most of the 20th century, since a movement to control France's fine-wine production began by strictly classifying wines and awarding appellations d'origine contrôlée according to vineyard location, grape varieties used, yield, vinification methods, aging time and other variables. The translation of such rules from wine to food isn't hard to understand. In 1926, Roquefort's appellation d'origine contrôlée was confirmed, the first French law establishing a controlled name for a cheese.

Other countries were slower to recognize the importance of protecting traditional foods and wines. Italy, for instance, didn't safeguard wines with denominazione di origine controllata, its version of this protected status, until 1966, and Spain was slower still to set up its denominación de origen. But as revered traditions are increasingly threatened, more and more producers are taking steps to procure this kind of security. In the new Europe, it has become the task of the European Union's complex bureaucracy, headquartered in Brussels, to regulate and protect controlled names, along with every other aspect of food and wine production.

The story of culatello di Zibello, Italy's Po Valley ham, is a good example of how a controlled name rescued a national food treasure from what seemed almost certain extinction. A boneless wedge from the upper haunch of the pig, culatello is rubbed with salt, pepper and sometimes garlic and white wine and is tied in a tight net of twine that, as the ham loses moisture and decreases in size, loosens and drapes like a thick, graceful spiderweb on the outside of the meat. The ham is traditionally cured in dank stone basements in the Bassa Parmense, the right bank of the Po between Parma and Piacenza, a region where cotton-thick winter fogs and hot summer humidity add a special sweetness to the meat, according to Massimo Spigaroli, chef, culatello-maker and president of the culatello di Zibello consortium. This natural environment, Spigaroli explained to me over a plate of exquisitely curled slices of culatello, simply cannot be copied outside the region, though attempts have been made.

Early in this decade, the disapproving gaze of sanitary inspectors fell on the dark, damp, mold-crusted curing cellars, and for a while it looked as though culatello would become but a memory. That was before Spigaroli and his fellow culatello-makers organized to defend their beloved ham. Now, with its denominazione di origine protetta, culatello di Zibello is safeguarded--which does not, of course, mean that it is produced in an unsanitary manner, but rather that unreasonable sanitary regulations that would have entirely changed its nature cannot be foisted on this gastronomic prize of ancient origin. (Because of U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, American importers are not able to bring culatello into this country; all the more reason to make a trip to the Bassa Parmense, perhaps to Al Cavallino Bianco, the restaurant in Polesine Parmense where Spigaroli serves his own satiny culatello from a menu of regional specialties.)

Pimentón de La Vera, paprika from Spain's western region of Extremadura, wasn't exactly facing extinction, but it did receive a new lease on life with the acquisition of a denominación de origen. The first aromatic seasoning to acquire the coveted status, the production of pimentón de La Vera has almost tripled in the past five years. That says a lot for the kind of market guarantee that a controlled name can offer. The paprika is produced from mature red peppers, which are dried and smoked over oak fires, then stone ground to a uniquely smooth, almost talclike texture. Even the spicy-hot version has a warm, rounded flavor, one that lacks the fierce heat of Mexican chiles. Traditionally used to season sausages and other cured meats, smoky brick-red pimentón also gives a characteristic meatlike fragrance to vegetarian and seafood dishes. Chefs in the United States are beginning to understand this quality now that sweet, bittersweet and spicy-hot picante versions of the paprika are all available here.

As the list of name-controlled products grows, consumers may be apt to think of this protection as a guarantee of high quality. This isn't necessarily so. As any wine lover knows, even though all Champagne is made according to norms established by the appellation d'origine contrôlée for Champagne, not all Champagne is great Champagne; just so, the quality of Roquefort, culatello, pimentón and other traditional foods varies from one producer to another. In the end, as with any food, it's individual taste that counts. But it's comforting to know that many of Europe's best-loved and highly prestigious culinary traditions are being given the added protection of a fierce watchdog in Brussels.

Published August 1999
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