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Ontario cheese-maker Shep Ysselstein, who honed his craft in Switzerland, made a conscious choice not to use European names for his cheeses. (Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail)
Ontario cheese-maker Shep Ysselstein, who honed his craft in Switzerland, made a conscious choice not to use European names for his cheeses. (Geoff Robins for The Globe and Mail)

What’s in a name? How cheese became a wedge issue in the free-trade era Add to ...

Nothing like a little cheese controversy to nibble away at a nation’s notion of food culture. Americans are raising a stink in reaction to free-trade talks that led the European Union to push for the protection of popular names for cheeses with historical ties to Europe, like Parmesan and Brie. It’s like déjà-vu for cheese-industry stakeholders in Canada. Europeans say that a cheese like feta, for instance, should only come from Greece. The EU argues it “is so closely connected to Greece as to be identified as an inherently Greek product.”

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Feta is one of five cheese names (the others are Asiago, Fontina, Gorgonzola and Munster) that Canada has agreed to recognize for its “geographical indications” as part of a trade agreement (CETA) signed last October. A list of 50 was originally proposed and five made the cut. For now, Canadian cheese-makers are preparing for when they will no longer be able to use those names. Current feta producers won’t be affected, for instance, but any new cheese names introduced after that will need to be qualified with words such as “kind,” “type” or “style.”

Erin Harris, a cheesemonger in London, Ont., is convinced her customers will continue to ask for feta – it’s part of our language. Best Baa Dairy produces a feta-style cheese in Fergus, Ont., that goes by the name Baa-Feta, which will satisfy the new rules and still resist confusing consumers. “It’s a spectacular product,” Harris says, “From a foodie perspective it might be even more delicious and authentic than the feta we can buy from Europe.”

Harris believes Canada’s local cheese economy is booming at least in part because customers no longer need to purchase imported cheeses to find great quality. Still it raises the question of what’s in a name. Geographical indicators and heritage are part of it, but many in the industry point out that AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) and PDO (Protected Designation Origin) have long existed to protect cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Brie de Meaux.

Meanwhile, issues of authenticity and locavorism have become hot buttons in the food world.

Thérèse Beaulieu, spokesperson for the Dairy Farmers of Canada says the same issues are coming up and being raised in the United States. “We can make Gouda as well as the EU,” she says.

Meg Zimbeck, an American who leads cheese-tasting tours in Paris, educates tourists on why European names should be protected. She gives the example of French Munster made from the raw milk of cows grazing in the Vosges mountains and compares it to a neighbouring cheese that is very similar, and goes by the name Gérômé. She says place is important not only because it determines what the animals will be eating, but also because the microflora – the moulds, bacteria, yeasts – that dramatically influence the flavour of raw-milk cheeses are different from one valley to the next. “If they can’t use the name Munster,” she asks, “why should North American producers of flavourless factory cheese be permitted to do so?”

The American Cheese Society, which represents 1,500 cheese-makers, released a statement last week calling for a “common-sense approach” to cheese names. According to the ACS, the names have become generic in the minds of consumers over the course of hundreds of years. “Many world-famous cheeses gained popularity with consumers precisely because versions made by immigrants abroad were readily available to a New World audience,” says ACS president Greg O’Neill.

The society supports the idea that cheeses be clearly marked with country of origin so that consumers are fully aware of where products are made and exactly what they are purchasing.

Some young Canadian artisan cheese companies have chosen to avoid the naming quagmire altogether, even seeing it as an opportunity to start thinking like winemakers in terms of terroir – differentiating products based on individual geography, history and culture.

In 2011 Shep Ysselstein started making washed-rind Alpine-style cheese on his family’s third-generation dairy farm nestled in the rolling hills of Ontario’s Oxford County. Ysselstein honed his cheese-making skills in Switzerland, helping to make Berner Alpkase, a cheese protected with AOC designation. Strict guidelines for production included rules for gathering milk, morning and night, from cows that were sent from the valley up into the mountains each day.

His own Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese is so-named for the country road where the farmstead cheese plant is located. Inspired by Swiss traditions, his cheeses share characteristics of Gouda and Appenzeller but are branded as Five Brothers and Oxford Harvest, names with personal meaning. “I made a conscious choice not to use those [European] names because I wanted to respect the fact that in Europe they abide by certain rules,” he says, “I also wanted to emphasize that ours were unique and all have a story.”

Just down the road, another Dutch cheese-maker, Adam van Bergeijk, makes farmstead cheese almost identical to the Gouda he made in the Netherlands before emigrating to Canada in 1996. The recipes and even the equipment for his Mountainoak Gouda were brought over from Holland. “At this moment we use the name Gouda to get ourselves known in the market,” he says, “In the next year or two we’ll have to take it out.”

While Gouda is not on Canada’s list of EU protected names, he’s reacting to news that the trade agreement means Canada will be importing another 18,500 tons of European cheeses. Walking into his local supermarket he is already frustrated to see imported Gouda selling for half the price of what he can charge. “I know it’s not the same quality but I don’t want to be compared to those cheeses, ” he says. European Gouda can be cheap because the farms in the Netherlands are subsidized and can produce cheaper milk, says van Bergeijk. He believes the federal government is to blame for creating an unfair playing field by making it impossible to compete. Promises to reimburse cheese-makers when the new imports arrive don’t help. “That’s my biggest concern,” he says, “We want to be honest and let people know what they’re paying for.”

For the second time in less than two years van Bergeijk is playing the name game. When a major importer registered the term “Prima Donna” in Canada, van Bergeijk was forced to stop using it. In the Netherlands the name refers to a cheese that combines characteristics of Gouda and Parmesan.

The ripening battle over cheese names reminds Erin Harris of another famous name dispute. When singer-songwriter Prince changed his name to a symbol in 1993, we kept on calling him Prince, she says, “We’d just say it’s a song by Prince – or whatever it is we’re supposed to call him.”

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