In addition to providing legally binding name protection for these products, the PDO system helps consumers distinguish between authentic products and their many imitations. PDO is translated in Italian as DOP, and in French as AOP. (AOC and DOC are similar appellations that protect wines.)
The whole concept of "terroir" - territory holds that the taste and other unique qualities of traditionally made foods and wines are influenced directly by soil, plant life, climate and time-honored methods of production that can't be replicated elsewhere.
When is Swiss cheese not Swiss cheese? When it's Comte, a gruyere-style cheese, from France. Swiss cheese is one of the many "brands" that have eroded over time to the point where the term has almost lost its meaning. While Swiss cheese generally means gruyere, it can be made anywhere, from the Midwest U.S. to South America, with whatever quality and ingredients the manufacturer chooses. This is why regional producers with traditional methods and regulations are fighting back to protect and market their higher-quality products.
In most of the world, wines and many spirits have long been legally designated and protected not just by country, but also by region. Champagne comes only from the small champagne region in northern France, port comes only from Portugal's Oporto, and all true sherry originates in Jerez, Spain. Unlike Swiss cheese, Napa Valley merlot comes only from California's Napa Valley, Chianti only from a certain part of Italy's Tuscany. In almost every case, national or state governments have assigned areas known for high-quality vineyards a special designation to indicate the quality of the terrain. These are called appellations of origin. In Italy, wines labeled DOCG are the finest, which translates roughly to denoting a place of origin that is controlled and guaranteed. In France, AOC on a label indicates an appellation of controlled origin.
While wines have a long history of this kind of legal protection, which also ensures the consumer of quality, many foodstuffs are starting to take the tact for the first time. Like the best vineyards, Comte is also a French AOC region, and the cheese made there comes entirely from the milk of specific Montbeliard cattle, each of which have an average of one hectare of grazing room, and are fed only natural products. Many other rules govern the aging, what can be added and every other aspect of Comte's production, which is why it is considered the finest "Swiss" cheese, and why it is worth seeking out.
Some 500-plus products are currently petitioning the European Union for some form of appellation protection, and the reason many of these are worth knowing about is because in many cases they are the finest products of their types, akin to Cuban cigars or Scotch whiskey. The best-known example is Parmigiano-Reggiano, known as the "King of Cheeses," which comes only from the twin cities of Parma and Reggio in Italy.
Long ago, the consortium of boutique dairy farmers who have been making the cheese in the traditional manner for 700-years lost the use of the name "parmesan," which is now slapped on cardboard containers of tasteless grated cheese made from artificial ingredients. Other variations on the word parmigiano are used by cheese makers in locales as far flung as Argentina, often confusing the public.
One taste of the real thing will clarify any misconceptions, and only the full name Parmigiano-Reggiano ensures that you are purchasing the authentic artisanal process behind the cheese, which includes milk from special cows which are fed special diets, zero additives, a minimum of two years aging, and rejection of all but the best final product. You can find true parmigiano-reggiano cheese from numerous retail and wholesale sources throughout the country. Buy some sort of "parmigiano-style" cheese from elsewhere and you might as well be drinking Iranian "champagne."
Many people erroneously believe that appellation designations refer simply to places where the products or ingredients grow well, but in most of the cases before the EU, it is actually more about the protection of a traditional method of production that has long has strict rules. By French law, all champagne can only be made from three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Sparkling wine from elsewhere can be made from almost any grape or even other fruits, such as apples. When you purchase items with an appellation, or simply ones from regions famous for producing them, you usually are getting the best available product for your money.
In a speech last year, Arthur Schwartz, author of Naples at Table and proprietor of the website The Food Maven, lauded the decision to protect many indigenous foodstuffs. "Italy has a long, long tradition of distinctive agriculture and food manufacture that reflects the geography, climate, culture and even politics of every region. This can't be repeated enough: These foods gain their character from the earth they grow in, the climate that nurtures them and the skills of the people who make them. In Parma or Bologna or Modena you had the best prosciutto. At home, demand genuine prosciutto di Parma."
It is neither practical nor necessary to try to memorize all 500 items the EU is legalizing. Nor is it solely an EU concern: true Vidalia onions, famed for their sweetness, come from Vidalia county, Georgia. The renowned Vermont maple syrup can't be produced in Texas and Maine lobsters have such a lofty reputation that their place of origin is boldly listed on menus all over the world. So how can you tell when a product is of dubious origin?
Often a shortened or altered version of a food's name, such as parmesan or simply prosciutto, indicates a hijacking of the brand. In other cases, look for the addition of the vague term "style." The famous and very, very expensive beefs of Japan, Kobe and Waygu, which come from cows not only fed special diets but massaged and pampered as if at a spa, are currently being replicated by domestic producers at much lower prices, so keep a wary eye out for "Kobe-style" beef on menus at even the finest of restaurants. After all, when you see signs proclaiming New York-style pizza almost anywhere in the world, it means only one thing for sure: You're not in New York.