Why we’re cry­ing over hard cheese

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

WE Bri­tish have squan­dered our as­sets and at no time is it more ob­vi­ous than when peer­ing into the tra­di­tional Christmas ham­per to dis­cover truck­les of Ched­dar. One of the world’s finest cheeses, it was once the prod­uct of spe­cial places and par­tic­u­lar peo­ple. Now, it could come from prac­ti­cally any­where that can raise a cow.

We’ve al­lowed ev­ery Tom, Dick, and Harry from Dunedin to Van­cou­ver to call their prod­uct by this fa­mous name—some­thing that the French would have fiercely pro­tected—and profit from it. Try whip­ping up any old blue cheese and call­ing it Ro­que­fort or Fourme d’am­bert and you’d be in court quicker than you can count. Gen de Gaulle may have thought it dif­fi­cult to rule a na­tion with 246 dif­fer­ent cheeses, but he made sure he pro­tected ev­ery one of them.

This pro­tec­tion was in the teeth of op­po­si­tion from the Bri­tish. Not only have we thrown away our own as­sets but, for years, our Agriculture Min­is­ters were in­structed by the Trea­sury to op­pose any ex­ten­sion of pro­tec­tion for food prod­ucts. Mind you, some of the more sen­si­ble ig­nored the de­mand, recog­nis­ing it for the doc­tri­naire free-trade ex­trem­ism it was. We’d al­lowed oth­ers to pimp off our prod­ucts, so we didn’t see why we shouldn’t do the same with theirs.

It en­cour­aged all sorts of rip-offs, in­clud­ing a dis­gust­ing Dan­ish con­fec­tion call­ing it­self feta cheese when it was made of cow’s milk 1,000 miles away from Greek pas­tures. Those who didn’t know bet­ter thought they were eat­ing the real thing and many were put off for ever.

Hap­pily, the EU has in­creas­ingly recog­nised the sense of ap­pel­la­tion con­trôlée and its na­tional equiv­a­lents. Even the UK has be­gun to sup­port the ef­forts of spe­cial­ity pro­duc­ers to pro­tect the hard-won rep­u­ta­tion of their lo­cal food. Not that ‘big food’ likes this dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion.

It was a Bri­tish su­per­mar­ket chain that tried to sell some­thing as Parma ham that was pro­cessed else­where. The court case that fol­lowed was de­ci­sive and, as a re­sult, Parma ham is now pro­tected from meat in­dus­try mass-pro­duc­tion tech­niques. That spe­cial taste and tex­ture that au­then­tic­ity gives will for­ever re­main its hall­mark.

Out­side Europe, peo­ple haven’t been so lucky and this month has seen the ex­ten­sion of one of the most fiercely fought bat­tles for food qual­ity ever. New Zealand, which isn’t above ap­pro­pri­at­ing peo­ple’s pla­ce­names for its cheeses, has dis­cov­ered the value of pro­tect­ing its spe­cial­ity prod­ucts.

Honey has, since an­cient times, been prized for its un­doubted health ben­e­fits—more re­cently, it was the trade­mark prod­uct pro­moted by ro­man­tic nov­el­ist Bar­bara Cart­land. Manuka honey has now achieved celebrity sta­tus and sells at nearly £2 an ounce—its tree, on which the bees feast, is said to add some­thing spe­cial, which is why com­pa­nies out­side New Zealand have cot­toned onto the idea of growing it and brand­ing their prod­ucts with the name.

In 2015, New Zealand’s manuka ex­ports rose year on year from £160 mil­lion to £225 mil­lion. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the Aus­tralians, al­ways dis­mis­sive of their neigh­bour, wanted to get in on the lu­cra­tive act and have been tout­ing their own ver­sion—but it isn’t the same. How­ever much the Aussies monkey about with the for­mula, the Ki­wis, rightly, al­beit con­de­scend­ingly, call it ‘Jelly­bush’ honey.

Now de­ter­mined to fight for their mar­ket, New Zealand pro­duc­ers are seek­ing copyright. Agromenes hopes they get it, not least so their cus­tomers know for cer­tain they’re get­ting what they paid for.

‘That spe­cial taste and tex­ture that au­then­tic­ity gives will for­ever re­main its hall­mark’

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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