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Traditional balsamic vinegars, the two protected by PDO labels, are made from 100% cooked grape must that has been slowly aged in wood barrels for a minimum of 12 years in the unique, humid climate of the Po river valley near Reggio Emilia and Modena. It is something used sparingly in professional kitchens - a drizzle over rare fillet steak, asparagus, or even ice cream - meaning that a small bottle goes a long way. One day, soon after purchasing it, I brought the bottle on holiday for my family to sample and accidentally left it out near the kitchen of our villa. My mother found the bottle and, unwittingly, used half of it to make a salad dressing for dinner.
When I discovered this the next morning, I was furious. I tried making arguments about its rarity, long ageing process and artisan production all of which made it entirely unsuitable for everyday use. In the end however, the only think that I could splutter, indignantly, that made any impact, was that she had, unknowing, consumed a €30 salad dressing.
I was even angrier with myself for making this crass argument. Resorting to price is something you hear often with wine, and it is usually a good differentiator between those who know what they are talking about, and those who don’t. The ones with genuine knowledge have the vocabulary to describe the quality of a product by focusing on its intrinsic attributes, rather than broadcasting an arbitrary monetary value. It begs the question, how do the makers and marketers of fine food products extend their appeal beyond top chefs, the fabulously wealthy, and food nerds like myself lucky enough to visit the producers in situ?
One way of communicating quality is through hallmarks, like the EUs PDO/PGI program, that is designed to protect the use of place names that indicate where and how products are made. However, balsamic vinegar is a good example of how the less stringent PGI label, that only requires certain elements of production to happen in the defined area, has been exploited and used to market a product that bears little resemblance to the traditional PDO products.
According to the EU, only 17% of people in the common market recognise the PDO and PGI labels and, I suspect, fewer still could explain the difference between the two.
Assessing “flavour profiles”, “depth” and “complexity” is common in the trade, but inaccessible for consumers. Like the hallmark system, consumers end up relying on the supposedly independent evaluations of “experts” which are often over simplified into meaningless points scores or rankings at the point of sale.
More concerning still, in the age of online misinformation, “influencers” and “fake news”, knowing whose evaluations to trust has become a minefield. Often those making the assessments are paid for voicing a particular view or are brokers who stand to make large profits from selling products on at an inflated price.
There are also other, more philosophical problems with the system. With food and wine, quality is generally seen as being synonymous with taste. If something is high quality, then it is likely to taste good. However, most would agree that taste is subjective, whilst quality should be able to be objectified.
Contextual characteristics such as naturalness, tradition, heritage, terroir, welfare and sustainability can also be used to describe the heterogeneous qualities of food and drink. Constructing and promoting these shared connections of worth and value is likely to give consumers a more relatable understanding of the intrinsic qualities of what they are buying.
This is not to say that taste doesn’t matter, or that there is no such thing as good taste, but it should be left up to the consumer to decide what is good, or high quality, based on their values and a proper understanding of production. From a consumer perspective, it is also more likely to enhance the overall enjoyment of products; so much of the pleasure that we get from quality food and drink comes from our understanding of production and the context in which it is consumed.
The controversial natural wine movement is a case in point. Wine experts decry the sale of what they see to be faulty products for high prices. However, in spite of this, the products have found a loyal market who care more about the fact that the method of production fits with their system of beliefs, than they do about the views of traditional quality assessors.
It is the challenge for the food marketing industry and specialist retailers to find producers and local communities that uphold these contextual values and extract a quality narrative that resonates with consumers. Those that communicate these qualities successfully will be able to take control of their own quality narrative, cutting out the role of traditional industry middlemen. This will lead to a stronger connection between the producers and consumers that will ultimately see producers receiving a fairer reward for their pursuit of excellence.
Theo Crutcher is the Founder of A Single Carrot, a communications, funding and export consultancy business for the food and wine industry
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