Friday, June 27, 2008

Ask the Cheesehead: What is a controlled designation of origin and what can it guarantee about a cheese?

Controlled designations of origin are a series of systems in place in Europe to protect food products and wine. France was the first country to initiate such a program, with a law passed in 1919 that was a predecessor to its current Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Italy instituted a similar system, known as the DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), in 1963, followed by Spain, Portugal, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

Excessive demand for popular products has led to a profusion of poor imitations. For producers, the designations protect their products from impostors who may use a product or geographical area's name to promote lesser quality goods. For the consumer, the labels are an assurance that products are exactly as specified on the label.

Camembert is a perfect case in point, and an example of how complex controlled designations can be. 'Camembert de Normandie' is a genuine camembert, covered by an AOC obtained in 1983. The cheese must be made in its terroir of origin (Normandy, in northwestern France) from the unpasteurized milk of the Normande breed of cows, hand-ladled into molds and drained naturally. It should be soft, but not runny, and is best when it is young – before it overferments. It is made by only 11 producers in the region. A cheese labeled 'Camembert fabriqué en Normandie' may be made with raw or pasteurized milk and only the cheese dairy needs to be located in Normandy. The milk can originate elsewhere. A label that simply reads 'Camembert' is not controlled by AOC designations so its authenticity cannot be verified, making it a far cry from the real deal.

Purchasing a cheese with a label such as AOC or DOP is not a guarantee of taste. But a consumer can be sure of several factors, including: 1) that the milk and the cheese originated from a specific geographic region; 2) that, in certain cases, the cheese is produced using a traditional recipe or method that may date back thousands of years; 3) that specific characteristics of the cheese (size, shape, texture) must be met; and 4) that the producer has been approved by the governing body of the country, which guarantees authenticity and quality.

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