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Why the food you’re eating may be masquerading as something else

To jaded citizens of Parma, the miracle that turns grass and flowers into exquisite cheese and meat is an everyday occurrence.

In the city’s main shopping street, a pedestrian thoroughfare lined with stores specializing in lace, there is a popular pizzeria on the main piazza, with tables set out on cobblestones and a seemingly random nautical/pirate theme. Every time I have visited Parma I have come here for lunch, and while pizzas are available with a wide variety of toppings, I always choose prosciutto, which comes generously spread across every inch of the pie. It’s delicious.

Like almost every restaurant in Parma, large or small, the pizzeria has a huge ornate enameled antique meat slicer proudly on display. These are almost always hand cranked, owing to a belief that the heat of a motor would harm the quality of the thin sliced, delicate ham. Whether you order a pizza topped with Prosciutto di Parma or a platter of the ham, it is sliced to order for you, carefully and lovingly, from a whole leg. These slicers are beautiful machines, works of art themselves, and I want one. They are as ubiquitous in Parma’s trattorias, osterias and cafés as WiFi is in Seattle coffee shops.

I envy the locals because when they order this same pizza, they have no doubt about where it comes from, how it was made, or how delicious it is about to taste. If they grate any extra cheese onto their pizza from the huge wedge offered, they know without asking that it is Parmigiano-Reggiano, made no more than a few miles from where they sit. They do not have to be an armchair gourmand or dedicated foodie to enjoy this fine meal, made with the best ingredients available, and they do not have to read endless food blogs to learn how good the meat and cheese are – they take it for granted.

Alas, the rest of the world is not so fortunate, and ironically, the ignorance of the Parmigiani may truly equal bliss, because this is a situation where even information is not always a saviour. For instance, you might go out to eat at one of the most acclaimed and expensive Italian restaurants in New York, which is to say, in the entire country, like my friend Alice Fixx did.

Alice has represented the cheese makers of Parma in a public relations effort to spread their truth for two decades. She speaks fluent Italian, lives several months a year in Italy’s Veneto region and otherwise resides in New York City. She also used to do work for the Parma ham Consorzio, and no one I know is more knowledgeable about both the King of Cheeses and Italian cuisine in general.

One night, friends came to town and invited Alice out to dinner at celebrity chef Mario Batali’s vaunted flagship Italian eatery, Babbo. As Alice told me this story, at one point during their meal, the waiter displayed a grater and large wedge of cheese with great flourish, asking her if she wanted Parmigiano-Reggiano on her pasta. She did not say yes. She did not say no. Instead Alice looked at the cheese and asked, “Are you sure that’s Parmigiano-Reggiano?”

He replied with certainty, “Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

She then asked to see the cheese. The waiter panicked, mumbled some excuse, and fled into the kitchen. He returned a few minutes later with a different and much smaller chunk of cheese, which he handed over for examination. The new speck was old, dry, and long past its useful shelf-life, but it was real Parmigiano-Reggiano, evidenced by the pin-dot pattern.

“The first one was Grana Padano,” she explained. “I could clearly read the rind. They must have gone searching through all the drawers in the kitchen in a panic until they found this forgotten crumb of Parmigiano-Reggiano.”

Alice Fixx was the wrong person to try this kind of bait and switch on, but she is the exception, and I wonder how many other expense-account diners swallowed a cheaper substitute. This occurred at one of the most famous and expensive Italian eateries in the country. What do you think happens at other restaurants?

Until 2013, it was illegal to sell real Prosciutto di Parma in Canada except under the odd name “Original Ham.” That is because a local meat producer, Maple Leaf Meats, trademarked the real name in 1971 and for the past 45 years has been duping Canadian consumers. By the time actual ham makers from Parma realized, the best available name they could secure was “Original Ham.”

This has been a thorn in the side of EU regulators ever since, and finally, as part of a 2013 trade agreement, they succeeded in their negotiations – sort of. Both the actual Parma producers and Maple Leaf Meats can now sell Prosciutto di Parma, real and fake, in Canada.

Excerpt from Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It, copyright ©by Larry Olmsted. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

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