Jack Knox: Latest bizarre happenings are all Greek to me

Jack Knox mugshot genericNews item: Athens will not back a multi-billion dollar trade pact between Canada and the European Union unless the deal is changed to specify that only Greece can use the term “feta” for its salty white cheese, according to a document seen by the Reuters news service.

“Remember it’s Mothers Day,” she said.

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“Is it?” I replied. “Or is my whole world a lie? After this week, I really don’t know anymore.”

“Pardon?”

“The New Democrats won in Alberta. McDonald’s is selling kale salad. The Montreal Canadiens are losing to Team Billy-Bob NASCAR. What’s next, Harper running naked at Burning Man?”

She touched my knee gently. “We still have the Greeks.”

This was true. In a world suddenly gone crazy (“Eat a Snickers, Alberta, you’re not yourself when you’re hungry”) you can always count on Greece to be predictable, to fight for the feta, no matter what the consequences.

We should not be surprised. It was a decade ago that the European Union’s top court granted Greece exclusive rights to the name “feta” over the protests of cheesemakers from Denmark, Germany and Britain.

This is nothing new in Europe, where other court rulings have determined that only products of the Champagne region of France may be labelled “champagne” and anything sold as “Cornish clotted cream” must actually come from Cornwall. Even Canada has agreed Scotch whisky must come from Scotland.

Indeed, hundreds of foods and thousands of wines are strictly regulated by the European Food Safety Authority, headquartered in Parma, Italy (where both Parma ham and parmigiano cheese enjoy protection). Shetland lamb, Roquefort cheese. Newcastle Brown Ale and even something called Yorkshire Forced Rhubarb, grown in a 23-square-kilometre area known as the Rhubarb Triangle, are protected. The reasoning is that some products are so closely identified with a place that only that place has the right to the name. In Europe, where artisanal foods are venerated (blessed are the cheesemakers, as Monty Python would say) it makes people crazy to see us slap words like “parmesan” and “feta” on what they see as the Big Dairy equivalent of an Elvis impersonator.

It would be nice if we were as passionate about protecting our own native foods — though it’s hard to find ones that qualify as uniquely Canadian. Rye whisky, perhaps, or ketchup chips, or pemmican.

Instant mashed potatoes were a Canadian invention (but so was Justin Bieber). Poutine (literal translation: heart attack in a bowl) qualifies as a national dish now, though Vancouver Island’s contribution, the combo burger (it includes a sliced wiener) is sadly getting harder to find.

We have some indigenous foods, such as Saskatoon berries and sockeye salmon, the latter getting its name from the Coast Salish suk-kegh, or “red fish.” The butter tart is supposedly Canadian by origin, too, as is the Nanaimo bar (“I’ll tell you what’s in a Nanaimo bar,” sang Gabriola Island folk singer Bob Bossin. “Smoke and peelers, cocaine dealers, redneck loggers, non-stop talkers, hookers with daughters, yes, yes, yes.”)

The TC’s business editor, Darron Kloster, contends that the best sources of truly Canadian fare are old church cookbooks, the gravy-stained, hand-assembled ones with the spiral binding: “Louise Tremblay’s moose strogranoff” or “Beryl Wilson’s pickerel cheeks.” Not sure we’re so possessive about a product that we would claim exclusive use of its name, though.

As for our local cheesemakers, they don’t seem terribly bothered by the international food fight (were it about noodles, they could call it Greco-Ramen Wrestling).

“It’s not something that we’re specially worried about,” says Daniel Wood at the family-owned Salt Spring Island Cheese Company. “It’s an argument that seems very far away to us.”

Wood says Salt Spring actually tries to avoid using the same names for its specialty cheeses as the big industrial outfits do for their products. That’s why although the island company makes a feta-style cheese, it prefers to market it as something called St. Jo.

Why St. Jo? “Josephine is my mother’s name.”

Happy Mother’s Day.

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