Hard Cheese! Authentic is the New Luxe

The term ‘mass luxury’ is a contradiction. It makes no sense, except of course in marketing parlance, when it becomes potent. True luxury in the consumerist Edwardian sense – a Fabergé egg let’s say, comprising beautiful and supremely well-crafted objects of rare originality are probably something that common or garden millionaires today will never get to see. The alpha and omega of luxury goods available to the public in shops runs the gamut from the affordable starter-for-one, the branded T-shirt, or box of chocolate truffles, through the dinky single diamond Dior necklace, as uniform corporate adornment, to the well-made Hermés handbag. Beyond that - true couture disappears from sight, except in art books, museums and the auction room.

There was a time however when well-designed manufactured and hand-made goods of genuine, if not lasting worth, were generally made available at prices that were affordable to people, even of modest means. An era spanning the mid-Victorian age to the mid-1970s. Sadly, the intrinsic worth of the product sold has now become so tenuously related to real value that the anomaly has become the invisible norm. Branding has now trumped the savings of mass production as the benefits in late capitalism no longer get passed on to the consumer.

Worryingly, the phenomenon now extends to the staple foods we eat.

It must have been ten years ago or so ago that I remarked on the price of some nuts to my favourite up-market grocer Ibu Susan, who knows a thing or two, who responded darkly that “the days of cheap food are over”. And she was right. A fresh loaf of good whole-wheat or rye bread in a downtown store can set you back US$10.00

In a place like Bali for example expatriates wanting to eat the kind of diet they’re used to and which has to be imported can expect to pay a premium for packaged goods considerably above that paid by their counterparts in Singapore or Hong Kong. On the credit side, the fruit, the vegetables are cheap and to die for. Note though, that local substitution of goods intended for foreigners, like chocolate or cashew nuts, say, appear to cost just as much as imported packaged goods. That seems greedy to me as they don’t pay heavy shipping or import taxes and why I won’t buy them.

Then there’s cheese. In another era I ate quite a lot of it. However in Asia I seem to have lost the taste, though I still enjoy real cheddar and on occasion a decent mozzarella. Which brings me to Parmesan… now about the only cheese I would not want to be without.

We all know, or should know by now, how often we are deceived by the people who process and sell us our food. We like to think the law protects us and that we have a right to know what is in the food we buy. Fact is, we are protected far less than we believe, mainly because of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on legal obfuscation by food manufacturers lobbying to keep us in ignorance. Not a year goes by without a major food scandal coming to light. This year it’s the turn of Parmesan.

In the 1950s the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stipulated that parmesan cheese cannot contain more than 32 percent moisture, while it must have a "granular texture," come with a "hard and brittle rind," grate "readily," and be made from cow's milk.

Nowhere in the definition is there the suggestion that "wood pulp" would be an appropriate ingredient. Nor does it say it's acceptable to substitute less expensive cheeses, such as cheddar, swiss, and mozzarella.

What distinguishes one cheese from another are its ingredients and the process by which it’s made. Different cheeses carry different fat, moisture, protein, and salt contents. Parmesan is what is considered a hard Italian cheese, defined by its low moisture, high salt, and medium fat content, as well as its long ripening process. Mozzarella, on the other hand, is high in moisture and low in salt. It also, like mass produced cheddar, swiss, and many other softer cheeses, doesn't require the aging process of Parmesan, making it cheaper to produce.

In 2012 the FDA found a major cheese manufacturer Castle Cheese Inc, of Philadelphia, was introducing unexpected substances into its parmesan cheese products and that their parmesan cheese products did not actually contain any parmesan cheese at all. The company filed for bankruptcy the following year and its CEO may do jail time.

As many long suspected, Castle's foul play is less of an outlier than an industry-wide norm. A new report by Bloomberg News, which tested parmesan cheese bought at various stores across the US, found many other brands advertised as 100 percent parmesan were nothing of the kind.

FDA's guidelines are vague about the permitted level of cellulose, an additive made from wood pulp. Cheese makers are allowed to use it to stop their product from clumping, which, per industry standard, is somewhere around 2 percent. But many cheese makers are selling product that contains more than ten times that amount.

Bloomberg went on to find that some Parmesan contained up to 20 percent cellulose, that in the case of grated Parmesan often less than 40 percent was actually a cheese product at all. The report indicates that a fifth of all hard Italian cheese produced in the US are mislabeled and that most major cheese makers are lying about the protein content in their cheese, because they were using extra cellulose.

The reason cheese makers cut corners is simple: it saves money. Making parmesan, romano, and other hard Italian cheeses isn't nearly as cost-efficient as making their softer counterparts as the drying process takes months shedding moisture and weight.

Depending on how long it sits, the same amount of milk means a lot less cheese by weight than making cheddar, swiss, or mozzarella. Adding extra cellulose, swapping in a little—or a lot—of another cheese, saves commercial manufacturers millions of dollars.

The growing popularity of hard nutty cheeses in the US, and the relative unfamiliarity there with the nuances of their true flavour, is making it easier for the cheating to go unnoticed. Last year the production of parmesan and romano production in the US grew by 11 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

The problem, in many ways, is a global one. Increasingly labels, supposed to allow customers to make more informed decisions, are instead turning into advertising vehicles, bending the truth in ways neither consumers nor the governments can spot or keep up with.

It’s not just food labeling which has become a powerful marketing tool, but the whole industry of blending and packaging, long the vehicle for other forms deceit way beyond the cheese industry. Look no further than the olive oil industry, fraught with fraud. And how much fish-farmed salmon you buy in a restaurant or a supermarket do you suppose is genuinely wild as claimed?

When it comes down to it, none of the Parmesan being sold in America is the real thing unless it is imported from Italy and stamped Parmigiano-Reggiano. Just as Champagne isn’t Champagne unless it comes from there. Doesn’t mean you can’t find a decent sparkling white wine from elsewhere nor a decent hard Italian style cheese. It just means the maker requires some scrutiny. In the case of parmesan – if nothing else, avoid the grated kind. It might be flavoured sawdust.