What really is authenticity, and does it really matter? Now hang on just a minute and think before you answer here. Don’t we all know people that rattle on and on about the importance of authenticity, when they themselves contradict the term on a regular basis? In fact - the word authentic is perhaps as overused as words like gourmet or designer (oh yes, you know it). Terms thrown around so much and so inappropriately that they are, effectively, meaningless. When everything is designer, gourmet and authentic…..NOTHING is. Right?
Since watching Ugly Delicious, the very entertaining and enlightening documentary series by David Chang and Peter Meehan on Netflix, I will admit that my view of the idea of the importance of authenticity when it comes to food may have gone through a bit of a shift. (And seriously, watch it if you haven’t already. It’s an important show.) Is local more important than authentic? Or vice versa. Or neither, perhaps. A lot of really important questions were raised as to the entire concept about what is authentic when it comes to food, because in the end food can be a very emotional thing. It can be evocative of a place, of a feeling, and of perhaps memories and connections that can be very sacred to us. Our hearts, souls and even our identities can be so tied up in what was on our plate then and there, and what we eat here and now.
So when it comes to food and wine - what exactly do we mean when we use the word “authentic” and how much does it really matter? There are going to be a lot of different opinions on this. Really, I think there is no blanket-statement approach to who can make what kind of food, or what ingredients must be used. But as we travel from country to country, or cuisine to cuisine - there are entities that exist that have been created to regulate, or better yet, designate what is and isn’t an authentic product. Italy takes this very seriously, for example, with a series of designations to identify authentic Italian products that are held to a certain standard. The system that has been set up for this can be mysterious to those who haven’t encountered it before.
Photos courtesy Jan K. Overwheel and Bottega Spa
But - I think one issue to consider is the fact that there are a lot of food and beverage products out there in the world, and not all of them are what they claim to be, or perhaps mislead consumers with branding that is meant to do just that. The Italian Chamber of Commerce of Ontario (ICCO for short), has been aware of this fact for decades now, and constantly work to raise awareness of why Italian-sounding products as opposed to authentic Italian products actually do matter. I’ve heard my friend Afrim Pristine, Mâitre Fromager of Cheese Boutique and author of For The Love of Cheese say more than once, ‘parmesan cheese” is definitely NOT Parmigiano-Reggiano. It just isn’t and it’s never going to be.
To avoid any confusion, the ICCO suggests the following when shopping for Italian foods as well as wine and other beverages: “Always check labels and look for the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), IGP (Protected Geographical Indication), and DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) designations.” For reference, here are what DOP and IGP labels look like:
So - is this all necessary? Does using an authentic Italian product truly make a difference? For the answer, I turned to some of the people that I truly consider to be experts on the subjects. Franco Stalteri is the founder of secret dining series Charlie’s Burgers and the CB Wine Program, a monthly subscription service that provides incredible wines to members that they’re just not going to get at the LCBO. Having worked with him before at Taste of Toronto, I know that he knows his stuff. When I asked him what he thought about the importance of these designations that highlight authentic Italian products, this is what he had to say:
Which makes a ton of sense, because the size of the operation and access to such designations doesn’t always mean that the quality is better. A very small, exclusive winemaker in Italy might just not have the ability to get such a designation but can still make an exceptional product. Sandro Bottega, President of Bottega SpA, was recently in Toronto to speak about his world-famous prosecco and the process of making it. To give some perspective, there is a history of wine and grappa making in his family that extends back to the 1600s, his products can be found in 132 countries, and Bottega Gold is the #1 selling sparking wine in travel retail. He sees the benefits of these appellations for consumers and producers alike, though like Stalteri knows there are some cases where they may not be as applicable.
In many ways, this may be more relevant to big-business consumer items. Cheese, for example, and most certainly olive oil, which most of us have heard is a category that is plagued by impostors. Still - what about chefs that are living and working in the Toronto area making Italian food? This is a city that prides itself on local, but I found still in many or some more specific cases, authentic Italian products still are a priority for many chefs. Rob Gentile, Chef Director of King Street Food Company, who is responsible for bringing the magic that are Buca and Bar Buca to Toronto is one person that has helped define Italian food for diners in Toronto in the past decade, so obviously the quality of the food and wines he is working with is a huge priority.
And of course, good chefs know this alredy, and great ones certainly do. What this truly comes down to is educating that person that is standing in the the grocery aisle, wine or cheese shop - or any kind of specialty store. Once they are armed with the right information, they can make the food they want. I mean hey - if someone really really wants those shreds of parmesan on their pasta - let them go there! At least they’ll be making an informed choice.
But if you’re nor that person, or are interested in learning more about authentic food and wine or just celebrating it, the ICCO will host a series of events in partnership with Centennial College called CENTItalia from November 13-16th. It’s a great opportunity to take part in workshops and master classes on the topics, meet a delegation of chefs and other culinary professionals from Italy, and of course eat all the delicious things. It’s open to the public, and the programming is free! Can’t argue with that- get your tickets
And while I believe that great food and wine are truly born of love, pure intentions (and in many cases, great technique) I do believe that it’s important to educate ourselves about the ingredients we are choosing. I’m not Italian (in case hat wasn’t clear), but it’s totally ok if I like to make it or eat it (obviouosly). Italian food and wine are revered around the world - and therefore a target for imitation (which really never is flattery, by the way). This is where appellation systems come in handy. It’s not to stop people that are not Italian from making and enjoying Italian food, not by any means. It’s about getting the real deal when you are looking for it.