Spelling out three little letters…
On a recent Saturday trip to a farmers market with my niece, I couldn’t help but notice the plethora of food messaging on show at each stall: gluten free, low GI, organic, low food miles, free range, locally produced...
As with any 4-year old, the sight of pretty signage offers the opportunity to show off her alphabet and spelling skills: O-R-G-A-N-E-(no that’s an I)-I-C.
In the interests of being a good uncle I tried to explain the meanings of some of the terms – sadly her desire to learn about low GI foods was outweighed by pull of the kids play area. An hour and one face painted child later, she was dropped off at her mother’s with a small box of raisins (medium GI in case you’re interested and a whole lot better than a happy meal!).
The signage at the farmers market was typical of any quality food store, meeting the demands of the modern consumer to understand exactly what they are consuming.
Italian food products have their very own seals of approval when it comes to food: DOP & IGP.
Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) is a distinction awarded only to foods made using traditional methods within a defined geographical area in Italy where the product originates from – both the region and the DOP stamp must be displayed prominently on the food packaging to signify the accreditation.
The famous DOP seal: a sign of tradition and quality
Take for example DOP Olive oils - no DOP oil can have acidity higher than 0.8 percent and olives can’t be stored for more than three days after harvest.
Our Riviera Ligure DOP olive oil has production methods dating back to the Middle Ages, where Benedictine monks increased arable land in this hilly region by levelling terraces behind stone walls, or maxéi. The Benedictine monks are also to thank for the taggiasca olive tree, which they cultivated over the years through careful selection and grafting. The taggiasca tree produces a unique olive and imparts Ligurian olive oil with a full and well-rounded flavour, and a deep colour.
The classic Parmigianno Reggiano cheese is also afforded DOP status. The DOP geographic area includes the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena, as well as parts of Bologna and Mantua. The consortium responsible for the DOP traditions maintains the strict guidelines for production.
Wheels of Parmigianno Reggiano. (Image licensed under Creative Commons)
Independent testers (or ‘Battitori’) from the consortium must wait 12 months from the date of production to begin the quality assurance process – this is because it takes 12 months before salt added during the ageing process permeates to the centre of the cheese.
Detection of air bubbles is a key sign of quality – testers tap on the outer walls of the cheese, similar to knocking on a wall to detect hollow spaces. Wheels of cheese which are found to have small air bubbles are marked as ‘mezzano’ – lines are scraped around the outer wall to allow the dotted ‘PARMIGIANNO REGGIANO’ notation to still show. Wheels with larger pockets of air are not allowed to be classified as DOP, so the dotted ‘PARMIGIANNO REGGIANO’ notations are fully scraped off.
The nature of following traditional, labour-intensive, processes and only using specific raw materials means that you are very likely to pay more for a DOP product than you would for a non-DOP one.
You are however enjoying an item which has the same authentic taste and flavour as it did centuries ago. As with anything in life, you get what you pay for.
Protected Geographical Indication (IGP) relates to produce with a specific quality or reputation attributable to the region of origin. For IGP products, it is permissible for only a single stage of production, processing or preparation to have taken place within the defined geographical area.
The IGP seal – as seen on IGP products
Take for example balsamic vinegars - there is a difference between IGP Aceto Balsamico di Modena and DOP Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. The primary difference relates to the grape that must be used. DOP vinegars must only contain grapes grown in the Reggio Emilia region whist IGP vinegars can contain grapes from other regions, but must be produced in the province of Modena.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar storage (Image licensed under creative commons)
For this reason, only the DOP product can carry the word Tradizionale, which ensures the consumer knows that its been made the traditional way.
The concepts of IGP and DOP are very useful means for the preservation of traditional production methods, so if you are interested in the provenance of your Italian food, make sure to search for IGP or DOP on the labels.