Why we’re crying over hard cheese
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’
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