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Protecting Italy’s food and wine

I still remember the first glass of Italian wine I drank while in Italy.

Only a few days after my arrival in Bologna, I took my first sip in a friend’s small apartment, just a few steps away from Piazza Maggiore, the city’s central square, home to the iconic fountain of Neptune, the Basilica di San Petronio, and plenty of walkers, visitors, and those lucky to be sipping a small cappuccino or aperitivo at one of the tables scattered throughout the piazza.

That first glass of wine would not be my last over the six months I would call Bologna home.

Sangiovese, Barbaresco, Chianti, Prosecco — Italian wines are some of the most well-known throughout the world, and Italy is one of the world’s oldest and largest producers of wine.

Each varietal is tied to a specific region and the unique growing conditions and biodiversity that allows the grape to thrive.

Facing wine menus, wine cellars, and supermarket shelves, I quickly learned the appellation system whose strict regulations would indicate the quality of the wine at hand.

Implemented by law first in 1963 and revised in 1992, the Italian appellation system not only indicates the quality of the wine and its production (yield per acre, alcohol content, aging time), but guarantees the varietal of grape is grown in the proper region. On Italian wine bottles found on shelves in the U.S., you can often see the IGT, DOC, and DOCG indications on labels, the primary three levels in the system.

Similar to wine, Italians view their food — pasta shapes, cured meats, cheese, olive oil — as only being its highest quality if it is grown or produced in the proper place, where it originated.

For example, just as a true Nero D’Avola can only be grown in sun-soaked, arid Sicily, so can only true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (to us, parmesan) be produced in very specific areas of northern Italy. Additionally, it must pass strict criteria regarding the dairy, aging process, and other standards to ensure its quality.

Formed in the early 1900s, a Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium also exists to not only oversee those standards, but to take legal action when counterfeit products are being produced and sold as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

One of the recent cases in April 2020 was against American food giant Campell’s. The issue at hand: a line of their Prego sauces had a label that depicted cheese wheels with the branding dots on the outside that are one of the markers of a true Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel.

“But Campbell’s sauces contain the ‘Parmesan’ ingredient, which has nothing to do with the original Italian PDO (protected origin) ‘King of Cheeses’,” read an article on ItalianFood.net.

After trying the real thing in Italy, I tend to agree.

Italy has the largest number of agri-food products with protected designation of origin recognized by the European Union. Those standards for a product’s origin and production are formed into Italian law, overseen by the federal government via the Ministry of Agricultural, Food, and Forestry. If a cheese produced outside of the 10,000-square-kilometer zone designated in northern Italy claims to be Parmigiano-Reggiano, it is punishable by law. If you make an American cheese and claim it to be a real Parmesan, you can expect a lawsuit coming your way from the Consortium.

To some, especially Americans, those regulations may seem excessive or stifling. To Italians, those regulations are necessary to protect the quality and tradition of their culturally rich cuisine.

“People protect what they love,” said Jacques Cousteau.

It is easy to fall in love with Italian cuisine. Your first glass of Italian wine, first spoonful of gelato, first handmade tortellini, first frothed cappuccino — when trying the real thing, it is easy to understand why Italians take such extraordinary measures to ensure their food is protected for generations to come, recognizing it as more than just sustenance, but a key component of their culture and identity.

If that’s not worth protecting, then what is?

Anne Gentry graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature and has studied in Italy and South Australia. She is currently executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority.

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