Cheeses can be identified like people: each has its own DNA of ancestry and culture, depending on where and how a variety originated. Great European classics were created long ago in distant parts of the world. Being isolated, they were protected from outside influences, and so stayed the same through the centuries. No one thought to copy them because these cheeses depended on places, seasons and local recipes to maintain their uniqueness.
As cheese production expanded across borders in later years, these cheeses were found and copies were made. Roquefort was copied by the Danes, and so Danish Roquefort came into being. Mozzarella, cheddar and feta cheeses were made worldwide using their original, local names. As cheesemakers emigrated, they took their cheese recipes with them and copied their homeland cheeses when they got to their new destinations. Of course, the new copies were different because of terroir, milks, animals and other man-made changes.
Over the years, the names have caused a lot of confusion and upset in the cheese world. Cheaper versions were made using the original names, but integrity was sacrificed to quantity. Therefore, in order to sustain authenticity in these old country cheeses, a control system was begun by the French government in the 1920s. Similar to wine area designations, each cheese-making area was identified as an “origin,” and the cheeses made there were given an area of origin control (AOC) to assure that buyers got the original product. Italy and France were the first to follow this designation format, followed by Spain and, much later, the United Kingdom. Finally, Switzerland joined the program.
Roquefort was the first cheese to gain an AOC designation in 1927. Through the years, Europeans have engaged in legal battles with United States cheesemakers to challenge any copycat cheeses. The French Roquefort Society was tenacious in suing any restaurant that had Roquefort listed as the blue cheese dressing on the menu if it wasn’t really Roquefort. The society is still very vigilant in protecting original cheeses.
The latest fight was between Le Gruyere Association of Switzerland and Emmi Cheese of Switzerland. The association challenged Emmi for allowing its U.S. factory to use the Le Gruyere name on its Wisconsin version of the alpine cheese. Switzerland won, and Emmi promptly changed the cheese’s name to Grand Cru.
In 1992, a number of original European cheeses were granted this protection under European Union law through the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) program. It replaced the AOC designation since it’s Europewide. EU cheese inspectors visited cheesemakers to find those special cheeses made in all European Union countries. They validated the authenticity of traditional and specialty cheeses that are unique. Cheeses are now given the PDO designation, and each will have a round, bright red and yellow label affixed to every piece of cheese. This PDO program extends to cheeses made in the 21 EU countries. The PDO protects both the cheese-maker and the consumer from copycats. (Some French cheesemakers still use the AOC description.)
There are 232 PDO cheeses identified by the European Union under this special status. France has 54 PDO cheeses and Great Britain has 12. The United States doesn’t participate in this identification program. Our cheeses are so new – 150 years old – that we haven’t really identified the impact of terroir or a cheese’s uniqueness in this country. Americans are still making versions of cheeses based on old European cheeses, with a few American original exceptions: Teleme, Brick, Monterey Dry Jack, Mt. Tam and Red Hawk, among others. Most American recipes that called for cheeses were originally based on European cheeses, but can be quite different, depending on producers and where the cheeses are made. Europeans boast that their cheeses have been made and recognized for 1,000 years and more. They want them to retain their originality and exclusivity by designating them with the PDO status that maintains their history and culture.
We can enjoy the best of the many worlds of cheese here in America. Look for the PDO label to find the European originals. While copies may be delicious, we need to know what we’re selecting and purchasing. Of course, our American artisan selections continue to expand with more available to us each year. After all, we live in a cheese-lovers’ paradise; just visit your local cheese market to discover it.
Judy Creighton conducts Second Sunday Cheese & Wine Tastings at 2 p.m. at Lavender Ridge Vineyard in Murphys, and 6 p.m. on occasional Tuesdays at Coppermine Wines in Vallecito. Reservations are $25 at Events@LavenderRidgeVineyard.com.
Leave a Reply