What’s in a name?

Geographic-locationIs King Island cheddar really more delicious than just plain cheddar? Does Tassie smoked salmon sell more plates than smoked salmon alone? Jac Taylor explores the potential of food products named after their origins.

Remember the bad old days, when sparkling wine was still called champagne, no matter the provenance? Even though the name ‘champagne’ has actually been legally limited since as early as 1891—by the Treaty of Madrid, no less—to describe only the fizzy that comes from the French area of the same name. Aussie tipplers still widely called anything yellow and bubbly ‘champagne’ as late as 1980 when the Wine Australia Corporation Act pulled us into line.

A fair few cranky consumers felt it was all a bit of froth and bubble. Fast-forward to today, and those same consumers are only too eager to find out exactly where not only their drinks, but also their food items, are coming from. Wines have appellations, and now too food is increasingly named after its origins—like Tasmanian brie, or King Island beef—and menus (and marketing strategies) are changing accordingly.

“Today’s consumers are very educated about food,” says Michelle Christoe, executive director of the Australian Horticultural Exporters Association (AHEA) and director of the marketing company Food Focus Australia. “There is almost an expectation of branded produce to indicate where it is from. They want to have the story behind the product so they can talk about it—Australian food provenance stories are the ones to tell and celebrate, as they represent what Australia is all about.” 

Geographical indications

The easiest way to tell that ‘story’ about a food product is indeed to simply name it after its origins, and this is called geographical indication (GI). It’s much more than just a marketing ploy; it keys into both intellectual property and, to a certain extent, food law itself. Claiming a geographically indicated food product in Australia is voluntary, and far less hairy than navigating the rules regarding wine, although this doesn’t mean open slather legally speaking.

“Most geographical indicators are voluntary claims,” explains Joe Lederman, principal at FoodLegal law division, “There are a few that are also trademarked (as certification trademarks) and accordingly these ones are also governed by the rules of the certifying body.

“A person could call his or her fish ‘Frankston fish’ but whatever the claim that I might make voluntarily about my product, it must not be misleading or deceptive or constitute a misrepresentation of the product. Otherwise, one would be in breach of the Australian Consumer Law (administered by the ACCC).”

Internationally, laws and industry rules vary, with many European countries being a lot more stringent about terms (hence the case of champagne, so to speak). With the more famous food-producing areas, not only must products demonstrate their provenance by actual location, but their qualities, general make-up and characteristics will also be examined to ensure they are worthy to enjoy the reputation already ascribed to the region they are claiming as a part of their name.

“A food’s origin can be turned into a competitive advantage on menus since it allows primary producers to demonstrate quality (in taste, in carbon footprint, or in ethics).” – Michelle Christoe, executive director of the Australian Horticultural Exporters Association.

Including geographically indicated foods on a menu—if they are well chosen to fit the ‘brand’ of the restaurant or caterer offering them-—can create linkages in the minds of customers between that business and world-renowned epicurean traditions. Of course, it’s not just marketing smoke and mirrors. Sourcing a product from its most famous originator also guarantees the finest-quality product ends up on the plate—and both the chef and the consumer know it. Everybody wins.

Production values

Multiple award-winning chef and champion of fine Italian foods, Luca Ciano, is a regular on the foodie speaking circuit extolling the virtues of the best of the best from his homeland. It quickly becomes clear from his speeches that interest in geographically indicated foods such as Parma ham (prosciutto di Parma) and genuine Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano) is only getting greater, even though (or perhaps because) these products have been around for centuries and require rigorous production techniques. “For example,” he says in relation to the famous Parma ham, “the pig must be a specific breed from one of the northern Italian regions, and it must be fed a diet of grain, cereal and the whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese before it is even considered to become prosciutto di Parma.” Only about 15 producers of this ham are allowed to import it into Australia which means it sells at a premium Ciano’s point at many of his presentations is that customers here are happy to pay the extra for ham with a provenance they know indicates quality.   

Michelle Christoe agrees. “Food provenance provides direct connectivity to farmers and their produce,” she says. “Understanding a food’s origin can be turned into a competitive advantage on menus since it allows primary producers to demonstrate quality (in taste, in carbon footprint, or in ethics).” And it is not just the retail businesses of the food industry that are noticing this.

Australia on a Plate, a wholesale food supplier sourcing local and some international products for the industry, recognise their spot at the start of the geographically indicated food chain. “Over the last couple of years especially,” comments sales manager Salma Ebrahim, “chefs are really wanting Australian produce from specific places. For us, something like Kangaroo Island honey is amazing. It’s more expensive, but it’s organic and it’s great and above everything, chefs want it because it’s Kangaroo Island honey.”

Their cheese department, particularly, is very much into naming names—and locations. “People ask for Parmagiana Reggiano because they know it’s the good one, they are looking for good quality and the name says it all,” Ebrahim continues. “But there are so many rules with cheese. We stock 11 raw milk cheeses and manchego is always popular, but to be called manchego, it has to be made with the milk of a certain sheep [the manchega breed] as well as coming from the specific area [of La Mancha]. Then there’s French brie and camembert, which must be quality-marked as coming from the milk from those areas; the cheese must also be produced within those areas and there are precise borders.”

It helps the little guys too

However, not every GI success story has to be a big name. A couple of years ago, Australia on a Plate took on a small Australian business in Shaw River, Victoria—Shaw River Buffalo Cheese. Taking it on as a pre-order only line, they saw sales rise steadily as chefs fell in love with the idea of the Shaw River lifestyle. “Did the Shaw River location help sales? Yes, for sure—no pun intended!” laughs Ebrahim. “This family imported their own riverine buffalo from Italy into this beautiful clean location, and that story alone is enough to make chefs say, ‘Oh my goodness, I want this product!’ It’s clean, it’s fresh, it’s vibrant.”

Today’s small producer may be tomorrow’s big name, and their location may turn into a foodie touchstone. Shaw River might not exactly turn into a ‘Brie’ or a ‘Champagne’—location names that carry a raft of meanings about their produce in a single word—but the current popularity of geographical indication has crossed nicely with the consumer trend towards becoming locavores whenever possible, favouring produce with fewer food miles and more local flavour. This means that Australian producers are in a good position to make the most of their regional status, and eateries of all kinds have more opportunities to showcase regions, old
and new, than ever before.