I attended a lecure yesterday by Ken Albala entitled Marketing European Food and the Image of Authenticity. His essential thesis was that consumers are willing dupes in a marketing ploy to present food as “authentic” or “traditional”. We like to believe the food and products we are buying are true to their roots and artisanla and we are happy to take at face value labels, terms and packaging designed to give us this impression. He used humorous examples from Alto Adige air-dried Speck (“air-dried” insofar as the factory windows are open) to Fleur de Sel de Guerande (produced according to traditional methods, but not actually tasting any different to mass-produced Sel de Camargue).
Professor Albala is an entertaining speaker and one who clearly has a wealth of experience and a huge war-chest of stories, and both made for a very interesting hour, in which he made a number of valid points. I particularly agreed with him when he questioned the very concept of “authenticity”. Authentic at what point? After all, Europe didn’t have potatoes or tomatoes until the sixteenth century, so you could say Colcannon or ratatouille are inauthentic. He compared those that wish to ossify a particular version as authentic to Academie Francaise-style grammarians – food culture, like language, lives and develops and must be allowed to do so.
Where I felt his talk was limited was that it presented a metropolitan and essentially utilitarian notion of why tradition or authenticity matters, or at least within its European framework. I believe that for many, the idea of protected designation of origin labelling is not (purely) about marketing or even taste, but about guaranteeing traditional ways of life and processes and ensuring continued social diversity in rural Europe. You could argue that the Common Agricultural Policy has always been an essentially social project and that the PDO/PGI/TSG schemes are just a twenty-first century way of dealing with the social dimension of rural economies, rather than the distinctly twentieth century option of market support. So even if there’s no difference between Sel de Guerande and Sel de Camargue on your tongue, you buy it because you feel a difference in your soul.