The Atlas of Aspirational Origins

Provenance is a tricky issue. Over the past few years, the names of agricultural regions, villages, and even specific farms have proliferated on urban menus and shelf labels, providing the aspirational consumer with a shorthand guarantee of authenticity, taste, and, often, local origin.

The idea is that by listing the farm on which your heirloom tomato was picked, chefs honour growers as the co-producer of flavour; meanwhile, by achieving protected designation of origin (PDO) status, traditional makers of pork pies and prosciutto preserve the geographic context of their product, as well as its artisanal technique and, often, its continued economic viability.

IMAGE: Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association (MMPPA) chairman Matthew O’Callaghan, via.

For consumers, however, these place names tend to form a more abstract cartography of implied inherent value. I confess to finding it reassuring that the lamb on offer at the restaurant up the street comes from Jamison Farm, even though I have no idea where that is, and I look for San Marzano DOP tomatoes despite the fact that (this is a little embarrassing) I couldn’t point to their carefully protected origin on a map.

IMAGE: The very delicious specials at Buttermilk Channel, with key ingredients precision-located.

Such haziness plays straight into the hands of less scrupulous food producers, who rely on the simultaneous geographical sensitivity and ignorance of consumers to borrow the halo effect of certain places, regions, and site typologies (think of the vast quantities of industrially processed foods that profess to be from some kind of “farm,” “glen,” or “dale,” for example). As it happens, the tomatoes most visibly associated with San Marzano in the United States are actually grown in California, not Italy (although they are the same varietal).

IMAGE: San Marzano brand tomatoes are not grown in San Marzano, Italy, but rather in California — a detail you could be excused for missing.

Indeed, the very concept of protected geographic origin is a tenuous one in the United States, which relies instead on trademarks that defend geo-specific brand names such as Boston Market (a national fast food chain based in Golden, Colorado) and Philadelphia Cream Cheese (manufactured by Kraft in Wisconsin) as well as Florido oranges and Idaho potatoes. The latter are at least grown in the places their names would imply, but, as the roughly thirteen billion Idaho potatoes and 139 million boxes of Florida oranges harvested annually set global market prices, they, as agricultural economist Bruce Babcock notes, “have as much in common with Roquefort cheese as Iowa corn has in common with Prosciutto di Parma. They are not differentiated products; they are the embodiment of a commodity.”

IMAGE: Oakham chicken and Lochmuir salmon, as pictured in Marks & Spencer’s online shop.

However, it is the branding geniuses at Marks & Spencer, suppliers of underwear and luxury ready-meals to the UK, who have taken the abstract, yet powerful, geography of food labeling to its logical, imaginary conclusion. While re-reading Sarah Murray’s excellent book, Moveable Feasts (of which more later), I came across this nugget:

Sometimes places that are entirely fictional are created to add to the appeal of a food. British chain Marks & Spencer recently introduced “Lochmuir salmon,” despite the fact that Lochmuir cannot be found on a map.

Marks & Spencer is refreshingly open on the subject of Lochmuir’s non-existence, with Andrew Mallinson, the company’s “fish expert,” explaining to The Scotsman newspaper that “it is a name chosen by a panel of consumers because it had the most Scottish resonance. It emphasises that the fish is Scottish.” Later in the same article, we read that:

The Scotsman understands Lochmuir salmon is in fact being farmed at five sites north of the Border by supplier Scottish Sea Farms after three years of research.

IMAGE: Lochmuir smoked salmon appetisers; apologies for the blurry shot.

Interestingly, Marks & Spencer had previously dabbled in the more common type of geo-label fiction, when it branded its chickens (sourced from farms across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland) with the name of a historic market town in Rutland county: Oakham. Local butchers were not impressed (“They’ve just come in and nicked our name”), and the town’s Member of Parliament demanded (unsuccessfully) that the geographically challenged chicken be re-branded.

It seems as though it is easier to invent a fictional cartography than appropriate existing high-value place names.

IMAGE: Oakham chicken, via.

And, as our food supply becomes ever more globalised, I can’t help but imagine that more and more producers of “luxury” foods will seek to make their product even more desirable with reference to a hyper-specific, utterly imaginary atlas of aspirational origins. Chinese fois gras will come from the French-sounding Beauchâteau, Vietnamese mozzarella will be marketed under the faux-Italian name of San Legaro, and the role of geography in food description — originally intended as a means to reconnect consumers and producers — will end up further disguising the industrial commodity chain while creating an entirely alternate universe, made up of the places that we dream our food comes from.

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13 Comments

  1. Posted January 10, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed this article very much. I am working on a project with a colleague where we are collecting many ‘imaginary sources’ for food, like “nature valley.” I am told Miller won a lawsuit over their invention of the ‘Plank Road Brewery” which really did once exist.
    You might be interested in the work of David Wengrow, an archaeologist who has been studying food branding in ancient Mesopotamia – it looks like branding might even pre-date writing. And of course the Greeks and Romans were crazy for wines, cosmetics, sauces and olive oils from named locations. I have written about the crucial role Paracelsus played, in the 16th century in inventing modern branding, which depends on the science of geography for its power.

  2. Russell H
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    … and not just in food. There was a manufacturing town in Japan that changed its name to Usa so the goods could be marked “Made in USA”.

  3. Posted December 1, 2011 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    You may be delighted to discover that a town named “Parma” has been recently founded in the chinese province of Gansu, in order to produce hams and other food products labeled as “made in Parma” (and yes, the same could apply to homonymous cities in Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, NY and Ohio, but in this case the chinese choice is boldly on-purpose).

    (ref. http://parma.repubblica.it/dettaglio/nasce-una-parma-in-cina-per-produrre-prosciutti-dop/1744930)

  4. jhm
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    It might be another example of what your saying, but San Marzanos are a variety of plum tomato, as well as a famous growing region.

    https://www.highmowingseeds.com/organic-seeds-san-marzano-tomato.html

  5. Kathy
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Have you ever read The Space Merchants, a dystopian science fiction fantasy written by Pohl and Kornbluth in the early 1950s? They are brilliant and prescient on advertising. The part about “the sundrenched plantations of Costa Rica” where Chicken Little is produced is priceless.

  6. Kathy
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Great article – and an important topic. Thank you!

  7. Posted November 17, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    This is a great article. Geographical names are amazingly important in food branding and marketing, in Europe we have over 3000 protected food names, however, outside a few über-famous products such as Camembert, Champagne or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, most consumers have a vague idea of what the name implies or where this place of origin is, this is why I started the Gourmet Origins project (http://gourmetorigins.com), at the moment is a marketplace but we aim to add several layers of provenance info (hence our name!), there is also the people that say that official geographical indications should not be “sacred”, and that they are to restrictive and leave amny good products out…in any case, one thing is sure and it is that provenance, whether people know what the names mean or not, is a really strong marketing tool and getting more and mroe in fashion (at least in Europe where the European Commission is processing every year more applications to grant protected status to foods!)

  8. Michael Robinson
    Posted November 17, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    My recent favorite was a restaurant whose menu listed the source of every ingredient, including variety of vegetable — most were ‘heirloom,’ natch – and then concluded with an explanation that the waiters uniform shirts were organically sourced cotton!

  9. Georgia
    Posted November 16, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    The PDP San Marzano tomatoes example reminds me of Batesian mimicry in non-human animals where a harmless mimic copies the appearance of a “dangerous” (i.e. chemically toxic) animal.

  10. Posted November 15, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Nicola – thanks for this great article ! This is what lights our fire. Real Time Farms, is trying to crowd-source the real data on farms and food artisans across the country and trace this through the food system – so people can always follow their food back the farm or farms it came from. My co-worker (and husband) just sent me this link while I was researching the farms for the label “San Benito” canned tomatoes. , the data that tells the real story of our food, beyond the label Thanks for bringing this issue out into the open -. If you haven’t gotten the chance to see what we’re doing with menus – check it out (here’s Zingerman’s Roadhouse’s farm-linked menu http://www.realtimefarms.com/restaurant/zingermansroadhouse) – we’re helping consumers go beyond the name, by tracing every ingredient back to the farm – so we can all ask the important questions. “Where did it come from?” How was it raised or grown?” and anything else that might be of our own personal importance. Best to you.

  11. Rob
    Posted November 15, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    As a marketer, I face the challenge of naming and branding products frequently. Bathroom brassware was one where we sourced from stylish Italy and low-cost China, although we put the same into the design and manufacture in both areas. However, there is something about food that requires trust from the consumer. It is bad enough that we all have a subconscious awareness of the often awful environments that these foods are prepared in, how the chickens are raised, the conveyor belts where they are prepared, the waste, the possible neglect of safety standards that has been evident from even the most established suppliers (Bootiful Bernard). If we are all honest, we know that none of this was made in grandma’s kitchen with tender loving care. So I dont agree with the deliberate misleading of the consumer regarding the source of the food. Fair enough, if the pig happens to be a ‘Royal Worcester’ breed, then put that on the label, but don’t imply that it is ‘Worcester Smoked Ham’ when it is ‘Smoked Worcester Ham’. Subtle but different. I have enjoyed the efforts of M&S, Sainsbury and others to differentiate foods by going back to basics, but to revert to cheaper product with an expensive label is blatantly misleading and unfair to consumer. IMHO.

  12. woid
    Posted November 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Taking this to an extreme: In “Portlandia,” Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein go to a restaurant where the server lovingly describes the provenance of the chicken. This isn’t enough for them, so they excuse themselves and go to the farm to actually meet the chicken in person.

    After further complications (the farm is part of a cult, which they join), they eventually return to the restaurant, where their server is still waiting, and finish ordering.

  13. Posted November 13, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for writing this great article, it is a topic not talked about enough.
    As a small farmer I believe the best way to know where your food comes from is to talk and buy directly from the person that produces it.

    http://agrarianstyle.tumblr.com

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