FORUM – What’s in a Name? Part 2

07 Aug 2001

Slow Food and other environmental groups push for fair labeling, supporting small farmers and top quality producers. Change can be accomplished through education, legislation and boycott.

Can’t decide? One company offers authentic looking shredded Quatro Formaggio, described as a blend of four Italian Cheeses. The ingredient list indicates otherwise. Other cheeses popular in local supermarkets, sandwich shops and food service establishments are: Gouda, a village in Holland producing round balls covered with yellow wax; Brie, an ancient region of France, well known for its double and triple cream; Camembert, the soft-ripened specialty of France’s maritime province of Normandy; and Munster, a small village that makes superb cheese in the French province of Alsace. It’s no surprise that “Madison Munster” and the genuine article are 6000 miles apart.

The pungent farmhouse taste of real Munster is just the thing to accompany a Bavarian beer–but from where? The U.S. or Germany! Bavaria is so famous for beer that in 1516, when it was an independent country, they passed the world’s first pure food law, the Reinheitsgebot Beer Purity Law. It states that beer can be made with only water, malt, hops and yeast.

In America, and other places, the majority of what is called beer contains as much corn syrup and rice filler as traditional ingredient. From earliest days, U.S. brewerÌs “borrowed” names like Bavarian, Pilsner, Tyrolean, Dortmunder, Vienna, Kulmbacher and even Scottish and never returned them! The biggest brewer even grabbed its name from a small city in Czechoslovakia long famous for its beers and then sued the original Czech brewer to prevent them from using their own name in the U.S.! Prohibition put thousands of craft brewers out of business. Since repeal; in the lab and on TV, large brewers have been able to redefine this classic beverage.

In the other hand, the U.S. now has more than a thousand microbreweries brewing wholesome, natural and delicious beers, most following the purity law. The best name their beers for brewing styles. They are mostly independent family owned operations worth supporting.

Vintners have been, even more accomplished than brewers, as plagiarizers. The list of misleading wine names is legendary. Not only are the names of specific wine growing regions like Burgundy, Moselle, Rhine, Champagne, Chianti, Sherry (Jerez), Port (Oporto), Madeira and Marsala, used shamelessly, so, too, are those of individual towns like Chablis, Johannisberg and Tokay. To make matters worse, it is highly unlikely, that the American version will be made with the same grape variety as the original. Classic Chablis is made with Chardonnay grapes and the generic version, from less expensive varieties. On the bright side, as America has moved to become a world player in wine, consumers as well as the trade, have become more well educated with big switches away from these misleading names. That said, huge quantities of such wines are still sold.

The aisles of our supermarkets abound with items that challenge the imagination_Italian Sodas, made in Seattle and Imported Black Forest Ham, from Canada. In the dressing and condiment section, the name Dijon, from the city famous for mustard, in Burgundy, France, is tossed around like just another salad. Locally produced Dijon, by itself or as an ingredient in dressings, proliferates. The name, “Champagne,” required to minimally have the prefix New York or California on wine labels, apparently has no such requirement, otherwise. Champagne-Dijon dressing for example is neither made with Champagne or Dijon. Not only are dressings from here labeled Italian and French but Greek Feta Cheese Dressings containing no authentic Feta from the old country are available from different producers.

Italian Sausages, Italian Dry Salami, Genoa Salami and Parmesano Salami are not from Italy; neither are Polish Sausages from Poland, or, Hungarian Hams from Hungary. Calabrese Hot Salame is not from Calabria, or even from Italy. Traditional Proscuitto, branded “The taste of Italy” is made over here. Kobe Beef, the pride of Japan, is grown in Oregon. Even Virginia Ham is made in N.Y! Is nothing sacred? Certainly, not the regions of Italy. One company promotes a line of sauces labeled d’Arbuzzi; d’Sicilia; di Liguria; Toscana; Parma and Capri. The word “style” is not to be seen. On the back of the red, white and green label is a map of Italy pinpointing the specific region named on the front. Look closely and you will see that they are “Made in U.S.A.”

Why worry about such “global style” foods, when the “real style” products of tomorrow are available today. There’s Chick’n, a non-meat substitute, but is it “free range?” Veggie Ham which could conceivably be kosher, and Cheddar-style Cheeze, made from rice! For dessert, how ’bout Chocolat-eee Cookies, which list no chocolate or cocao as ingredients?

Sleazy semantics pale in comparison to what’s not on the label. In America, genetically modified food requires no special labeling. Voluntarily, other products may state “Produced without genetically modified ingredients.” reversing logic. It doesn’t make sense, just dollars. Our country is in deep doo-doo in fertilizers made from nuclear sludge and industrial waste, yet no requirement is placed on producers to reveal ingredients. Newly established rules for organic labeling are confusing and fall far short of assuring consumers that what they are buying is safe.

What a bunch of vegetarian baloney! _ the colloquial pronunciation of a sausage labeled as Bologna, for that famous Italian city. Authentic artisanal, Bolognas there are called Mortadella, although sausages with this name are also imitated here. Perhaps next to the hot-dog, “baloney” is the most American of all sausages and, equally, as tasteless. It is not surprising that it is also the colloquial expression for nonsense.

Charles Finkel is one of the world’s leading authorities on beer and an active member of SF Seattle.

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