Europe’s reputation for culinary excellence is protected by systems that carefully control how everything from wine to cheese to beef is produced and labeled. The French appellation d’origine contrôleé (AOC) was the first system to designate certain geographical regions from which specific products can originate. Roquefort cheese, for instance, must be certified as coming from the Roquefort region. Only wines produced in the designated Burgundy region are legally allowed to have “Burgundy” on the label. The tradition of regional “truth in labeling” goes back centuries in France, but was made official in 1925 with the establishment of what is now called the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité. Today, countries across the European Union use the AOC system to specify both regions and methods of manufacturing for most agricultural products. The AOC systems protect the quality and value of European products and tell consumers what to expect from the bottle of wine, chunk of ham, or wedge of cheese they are buying.
The EU system has three different protections. These are the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG). The most rigid designation is PDO, meaning that the cheese was entirely produced in the named region using approved techniques. There are around 140 cheeses that qualify for PDO status. PGI indicates that at least one stage of production took place in a geographic designation, and TSG refers to traditional ingredients or techniques with no geographic limitation.
Many French and Portuguese cheeses have their own country’s name designation and the EU designation on top of that. Spain’s system is set up a little differently. It is called Denominacion de Origen (DO). Local or regional councils regulate the specific cheeses, and each cheese will have its own symbol of authenticity. For instance, Queso Manchego is DO certified and its seal has the cheese’s distinctive rind pattern and a silhouette of Don Quixote ridding his horse. Likewise, Queso Mahon has its own symbol.
All of these symbols and logos are not necessarily visible to the consumer, as they are usually located on the labels of the whole wheel of cheese. That is where a reputable cheese shop can pick up the slack for you. They know what they are buying. They should know or at least be able to find out this kind of information for you. But remember that these regulations in many cases only ensure minimum standards, so not all of these cheeses will be created equally. Knowing the denomination of the cheese is only one brick in the wall. Tasting the cheese really seals the deal.
Some of my favorite designated cheeses
Bleu d’Auvergne- French AOC, EU AOP
Comte- French AOC, EU AOP
Morbier- French AOC, EU AOP
Pont l’Eveque- French AOC, EU AOP
Roquefort- French AOC, EU AOP
Gorgonzola- EU DOP
Mozzarella do Bufala Campana- EU DOP
Provolone Valpadana- EU DOP
Taleggio- EU DOP
Mahon- Spanish DO, EU DOP
Queso de Valdeon- EU DOP
Queso Manchego- Spanish DO, EU DOP
Emmentaler- Swiss AOC
Gruyere- Swiss AOC
Sbrinz- Swiss AOC
Stilton- EU PDO
West Country Farmhouse Cheddar- EU PDO