Food geography n°1 – Looking for usages locaux, loyaux and constants: The problem of the Wescountry Farmhouse Cheddar protected denomination of origin (PDO) in the United Kingdom

15 novembre 2011   Mot-clé: , , , ,


Erica A. FARMER, PhD candidate, Department of Anthropology, University College London


Although the regulation of geographical indications in France through the AOC system benefits from a robust set of linkages between law, culture, and practice, as exemplified in the classic formula of « usages locaux, loyaux, et constants, » not all geographical indication systems are founded on such solid ground.  Drawing from a case study of the Protected Denomination of Origin for Westcountry Farmhouse Cheddar in the United Kingdom, this article will explore problems of value and authority that derive when links between product and place begin to unravel, and the choices and concerns such a loss creates for producers. Has the United Kingdom really « lost » Cheddar, or are new initiatives at geographical indication protection working as ways to reclaim cultural heritage values from the clutches of globalization and the generic?


Geographical indications, appellation d’origine controlée (AOC), law, cheese, generics

Résumé :

Bien que la réglementation des indications géographiques se fonde en France, avec le système des AOC, sur des liens solides entre le droit, la culture et les pratiques, comme en témoigne la formule des « usages locaux, loyaux et constants », tous les systèmes d’indications géographiques ne s’appuient pas sur des bases aussi solides. A partir de l’étude du cas de l’Appellation d’Origine Protégée du Westcountry Farmhouse Cheddar au Royaume-Uni, cet article traite des problèmes de valeur et d’autorité qui apparaissent lorsque les liens entre un produit et un lieu se distendent, et des préoccupations et des choix que cette potentielle disparition entraîneraît pour les producteurs. Le Royaume-Uni a-t-il réellement « perdu » le Cheddar, ou les nouvelles initiatives autour de la protection des indications géographiques permettent-elles une réappropriation par les producteurs des valeurs associées à l’héritage culturel face aux menaces de la mondialisation et de la banalisation de l’appellation ?

Mots-clés :

Indications géographiques, appellation d’origine controlée (AOC), droit, fromage, termes génériques



We’ve lost control over the name ‘cheddar.’ Now they make it all over the world– in the US, Canada, New Zealand….they make it in all kinds of different ways… It’s history.  We’ve lost it.  Once that happens, it’s very difficult to draw the line….  

Interview with a Somerset cheesemaker, 4 March 2010

One of the strengths of the French appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system is the way it forges and reinforces links between local usage and legal protection.  In the course of my ethnographic fieldwork in Bordeaux, I have been struck by the intimacy with which the system works alongside cultural practices and norms, as exemplified in the idea of usages locaux, loyaux, et constants.  But, in many ways, the links in the French case present an ideal of legal and cultural interconnection that may not be entirely realized when the model is transplanted outside its native context.  Such a shift is the basis of my comparative study of the workings of geographical indication[1] (GI) protection in the United Kingdom, where far from being organically developed within local culture, a regime of protection has arrived, instead, via a trickle-down effect from the European Union. This lack of cultural linkage has complicated use of the GI system, but at the same time, there remains a desire to value and protect heritage products using that system.  As a result, the question becomes, « what happens to producers and the meanings of geographical indication protection in the absence of such intimate cultural linkages between products and places? »

The present piece will consider these questions through an examination of the PDO for West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, which seeks to protect « cheddar » cheese in its traditional region of production.  By doing so, I will address the problems that come when products become detached from places, as well as the complications when actors attempt to reforge those lost connections, including issues of authority[2] (or the lack thereof), the dangers of the generic, and the strategies that arise in the face of perceived devaluation of  production standards.

This article grows out of ethnographic fieldwork performed during the last two years in support of my doctoral dissertation in anthropology, which is based primarily on a comparison between the French AOC system and the UK PFN system. This material on Cheddar is one of a series of case studies which I will use to paint a broader picture of the UK PFN system as a whole. The primary focus of my research is on policymakers, educators, bureaucrats and other public facing actors, although I supplement those interviews through discussions with producers, particularly in the case of the UK.


As the birthplace of geographical indications (via AOC) and the inspiration for much global geographical indication policy, Bordeaux, and France more broadly, has been able to construct a regulatory system that articulates around existing social hierarchies, community practices, and traditional actors (Chevet, 2009 ; INAO, 1985 ; Jacquet, 2005 ; Roudie, 2001 ; Stanzini, 2004 ; Visse-Causse, 2007). Under the terms of the AOC legislation, legal protection is constructed through the conjunction of multiple elements that link products and place, legally codified through the phrase « usages locaux, loyaux, et constants. » Each part of this formulation blends together to create a robust and circumscribed concept of cultural value and it is only by proving each element that legal status is gained. Links between products and a particular, definable locality constitute usages locaux, while usages loyaux are reputational, depending upon perception of local links by both community members and residents of neighboring regions. Finally, usages constants assert the time-honored nature of the practices defined by the first two factors. Under such a structure, enforcement and authority hinge upon shared community-based reputations and power as distributed along longstanding regional structures (Roudie cited in Hinnewinkel et al., 2008: 26 ; Visse-Causse, 2007: 127). Because AOC law is sui generis in France, these links are embedded both culturally and philosophically as well as through the imprimatur of law, allowing for a certain ease in the translation of cultural terms and values to what is regulated, as well as to the mechanics of the system.


Unlike the French AOC system, which presupposes the types of traditional linkages between practice and policy that mark the French wine industry, the UK Protected Food Name (PFN) system is marked by a number of broken linkages, in terms of history, philosophy, and acceptance.

Three such factors prove particularly important in the case of GIs. First is the historical breakdown of regional food heritage in the UK, particularly as a legacy of World War II food policy[3].  In the interest of supplying the wartime populace, the government targeted and marginalized regional food traditions as inefficient, leading many of them to die out. For example, « [b]efore the First World War, Britain could boast some 3,500 independent cheesemakers. By 1945 this figure had fallen to fewer than 100. At the height of the Second World War, the Ministry of Food ordered all milk producers to contribute towards a single National Cheese… Nationalisation meant the end for many small creameries » (Brown, 2007).

Changes in distribution also had their effects on regional and artesan production. Long a heavy food importer, the mid twentieth century saw an even greater homogenization of distribution channels, the so-called « decline of the corner shop » (Burnett, 1979 : 291 ; Herbert, 2000 : 198). In the UK market today, a trio of major supermarket players serve to control the market for food and encourage a further drive to homogenization and a privileging of cheap food over quality food (BBC News, 2005 ; Finch, 2007 ; Simms, 2007), which has impacted the economic viability of the production of artesan foodstuffs in the broader market, as well as their availability to consumers.

And finally there is a distrust of the PFN system itself as an imposition of regulation from outside, both due to its linkages with the EU as well as a lack of public awareness. For many, GI status is just another label on one’s package, or just another way the European Union is trying to interfere in the ways local producers make decisions. Consequently a drive toward individuality as producers couples with a concern about governmental and extragovernmental interference in the setting of standards of practice.


The PDO for West Country Farmhouse Cheddar was among the first in the UK, issued in 1993.  Today it comprises a total of 13 producers of cheese located across the Western UK. West Country Farmhouse Cheddar is defined in the PDO dossier as a « cylindrical or block shaped firm cheese, creamy yellow in colour, made from cows’ milk. [It possesses an] utty full rounded flavour with a hint of sharpness achieved through natural maturing, » and production takes place in historical counties of Dorset, Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall. Although they express a preference for milk from the cheesemaker’s own herd or local farms, the regulations also suggest that milk from neighboring areas can be used « in times of shortage. » (West Country PDO) The defining characteristic of cheddar cheese, however, is less these components than its means of production. « Cheddaring » is the process by which the curds are folded and refolded to create the defining texture of a hard cheddar cheese.  The name of the finished cheese is linked to its traditional place of maturation, the cave complexes of Cheddar Gorge, in Western Somerset, where farmers would take advantage of the cool temperatures to allow for the extended period (nearly a year or more) during which the cheese was exposed to the air and local molds, to allow it to attain the proper level of maturity.


Although it once maintained real links with Somerset and Cheddar Gorge, Cheddar was in many ways a victim of its own success. Quite popular, it began to travel with emigrants from the region, who carried it all around the English diaspora. And because its identity was primarily linked to its process rather than its place of production, different « cheddars » sprang up all over the world (Davis, 1981: 48). Cheddar became simply a hard cheese produced by the cheddaring process, and not much more. This is why today there is a need to further delimit GI cheddar, rather than just being able to protect the name « cheddar » in all its forms.

But once a rupture of the linkage between product and place happens, is there any reclaiming it? Without a cultural heritage link, factors like the role of the terroir of Somerset (which links to milk quality, traditional cattle breeds, and the types of molds native to the area) or traditional maturation process (wrapped in cloth, rubbed with animal fat, and kept in caves for a year or more) did not maintain a presence in the cultural construction of what cheddar cheese is. Instead, interpretations of « cheddar » cheese are many, and contested in ways that can call the PDO into question in fundamental ways.

As a legal term, « ‘generic’ means the name of an agricultural product or a foodstuff which, although it related to the place or the region where this product or foodstuff was originally produced or marketed, has become the common name of an agricultural product and foodstuff in the Community »(Council Regulation (EC) No. 510, Article 3(1), of 20 March 2006 on the protection of geographical indications and designations of origin for agricultural products and foodstuffs). In the case of geographical indications, the idea is that the linkages between cultural production factors and place have become attenuated to the point that the product has lost the specificity necessary to ensure protection. In France, the idea of a generic GI holds little philosophical sway. Due to the importance of terroir and related concepts, there is a sense of specialness or je ne sais quoi linked to the combination of the places and processes by which AOC products are made, and that sense is intrinsic and impossible to erode or alienate. As such, protected products can never be anything but particular– separating the process from savoir faire is a way of destroying the core of what they are all about (Olzak, 2001: 5). The international difference in orientation between GI supporting and GI opposing countries lies in a split – either a focus solely on the product or a focus that sees such a product as intrinsically linked to how it is made as well as the procedure that creates it.  If the end product is all that matters, the process may as well be done anyplace, but if value comes from beyond the object, then one must find a way to create a proxy for the source of that added value.

The United Kingdom is peculiarly positioned in terms of these generic debates. In many ways it is rooted in a hybrid space – with the ability to align products and places that settler states cannot mobilize, but also confronted with a historical rupture around the very cultural linkages that are used to reinforce those links between products and places. As such, producers find themselves in a position where they need not only to claim authority to define the meanings and production methods of cheddar, but to assert that those claims of value remain strong enough to still be asserted in the first place. In this way, the PFN system is being used not only for classic geographical indication functions, but also as producers attempt to preserve or reassert the elements of cultural heritage value that make their products special, and specific.


Although the group of PDO cheddar producers is relatively limited, it is far from homogeneous. There are a wide range of different producers, methods and interests at play. This leads to a tale of two very different styles of cheese, which nonetheless share the name (and PDO) of West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. The primary similarities are minor: linkage to production within a broad swath of the Southwestern UK and the usage of the cheddaring process. The contrasts, on the other hand, are both major and striking. On one hand you have small scale, artesanally produced cheese, which valorizes the nuances of raw milk, hand production, and terroir, as well as the skill of individual cheesemakers, traditional production and recipes. On the other hand is a much more commercial kind of product, with a stronger emphasis on consistency, replicability, and volume. The milk is pasteurized and the method of maturation is shorter and in completely different conditions (wrapped in plastic as opposed to unwrapped and exposed to natural fungi in open storerooms). Yet the vagueness of the defined standards allows both types of producers to conform to the requirements itemized in the PDO. Given this setup, the salience of PDO definitions is somewhat problematic – having to please such a wide range of different producers with divergent production styles leaves meaningful common ground minimal. Smaller artesan producers, in particular, consider the PDO group to be vastly overinclusive and often eye the categorization warily as a result.


These problems of authority and definition can provide one very real reason that producers choose or refuse to align themselves with the PFN system. Among my informants, debates often hinged upon whether to belong to the system or whether « opting out » would the best way to preserve their concepts of product value. The overbreadth of definitions was seen to constitute a major problem.  During one of my interviews, I asked an informant who had previously been affiliated with the PDO why he had chosen to « opt out » of continuing that status. “I didn’t want to be associated with it, » he said. “It downgrades the quality because it’s too broad, and there a number of things that matter to me, but not to the PDO » (interview, 11 March 2010). Feeling their individual reputations and values are jeopardized by a PDO which is oriented differently to their preferred methods of practice, many prefer to « go it alone, » relying on their own integrity rather than the « shared » values of a largely inchoate group.

Aside from concerns about individual goals and reputations, the other reason to opt out is due to the current low profile of the system. Given confusion and/or ignorance about the meanings and importance of PFN, some producers consider the time, expense, and difficulty of application not to be « worth it » to them (interviews, 4 March 2010 and 20 July 2010). Currently the publicity and all other non-application functions of the system are undertaken by a single government employee. As another informant familiar with the PFN program pointed out, « [i]f you want to [protect GIs] you need to support it with a heavy marketing budget. Right now it’s the collective efforts of individual companies that are growing the market. It’s the brands, not the PFNs » (interview, 25 March 2010). Until the cache of PFN grows enough to change that, things are likely to remain at least somewhat difficult, and the quirky features that trouble the structure are unlikely to go away.


Faced with a system which they see as divergent from their production values, producers look elsewhere for sources of authority and valuemaking. In the case of cheddar, one alternative is through an association with the Slowfood Presidium program. In keeping with their valuation of handmade, small produced anti- »fast food » products, the Slowfood organization has selected a number of products worldwide which they felt conform to such an ideology. In that context producers have been able to create a tighter, more AOC-style set of norms, reviving some of the traditional links between terroir, practice, and « cheddar cheese. »

« Artisan Somerset Cheddar » was one of the first international Slowfood Presidia. The group involved is a far tighter and more exclusive one than the PDO, consisting of only three small scale producers in Somerset, all of whom also belong to the broader PDO. In creating the Presidium, Slowfood asked those producers to identify what they saw as the fundamental qualities of artesan cheddar (interview, 4 March 2010). The final list included seven factors to define Artisan Somerset Cheddar.  They include: 1) linkage to Somerset- citing the terroir value of the region, 2) the usage of one’s own cows to allow control over the milk, 3) the use of raw milk, meant to give added dimension and character to the final cheese, 4) the use of pint starters, the traditional means of starting the curdling process, 5) use of animal rennet- the traditional enzyme used to initiate that process, 6) cloth binding of cheeses for the maturation process, 7) aging for at least 11 months. Needless to say, these rules are considerably stricter than the general ones of the PDO, if solely through their number and specificity.  Slowfood trumpets the Presidium as a  « cast iron endorsement of authenticity. »


The producers of « cheddar cheese » in the Western United Kingdom are faced with a difficult problem. How, in the face of eroding (and arguably lost) global valuation of traditional linkages of Cheddar with its origins and historical terroir, can they reestablish a standard of more « authentic » practice when confronted with the countervailing pull of the generic? In the case of Westcountry Farmhouse Cheddar there has clearly been an attempt to assert such standards, but the loss of classic AOC-style connections has lead to a crisis of authority, leaving individual producers to feel threatened by the overbreadth of the system. The alternative system of the Slowfood Presidium program seems to act as an intentionally self-aware attempt to reassert the type of specific values which would reconnect terroir and practice links that underpin more successful GI systems. Perhaps such refinements in standards are a step in the right direction, though they may well become problematic in terms of regional-level producer politics. One thing does seem certain, however. Even if securing and reinforcing status is becoming less of an uphill battle, the road ahead still seems likely to remain rocky for some time to come.



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Pour citer cet article

Farmer E., 2011, “Looking for usages locaux, loyaux, and constants: The problems of the Westcountry Farmhouse Cheddar Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO) in the United Kingdom”, Food Geography, n° 1, p. 46-54.

[1] The specific GI system in place in the UK is the EU based Protected Food Name (PFN) system— AOP (appellation d’origine protégée) in France.  In this piece I will occasionally refer to the specific level of protection for West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, PDO (protected denomination of origin) interchangeably with the broader PFN acronym which also includes PGI (protected geographical indication) and TSG (traditional specialty guaranteed) protection.  Although there are important differences among these subcategories of PFN, for the purposes of a more conceptual analysis like this one the umbrella term is most effective for communicating a sense of the broader GI system and thus PFN will be my default term here.

[2] The purpose of the present discussion is not to debate the broader anthropological, legal, or philosophical meanings of the word « authority » or to precisely define its role in relationship to Foucaultian or other notions of power. Although such debates are certainly worth considering, I have neither the space nor desire to do so here.  For the purposes of the piece, a basic dictionary definition will suffice.  The first Oxford English Dictionary definition of the term highlights many of the aspects I hope this article will elucidate,  « Power or right to enforce obedience; moral or legal supremacy; the right to command, or give an ultimate decision. » (« authority. » Oxford English Dictionary onlineAt, Accessed 2 May 2011). Ultimately, I hope to consider the ways in which existing actors do or do not possess the ability to build meaningful consensus among their peers in terms of the legally binding elements of the PFN system. 

[3] The lack of scholarly work on British food heritage is partially symptomatic of a broader problem linked to the literature on food and in part specific to the British case.  Although a wide variety of my informants, particularly government officials and food educators, were aware of the impacts of food policy, it is difficult to find such information presented in scholarly texts.  In general, food related discussions are often marginalized or housed in « foodie » literature or novelty presses if such discussions are held at all. This topic was the major concern of the recent « Why we eat how we eat » conference held at Goldsmiths, 24 Febrary 2011, and was specifically highlighted in the closing remarks by Prof. Harry West from the SOAS Food Studies Center. John Barrett notes a similar lack of scholarly attention to the study of food in the preface to Plenty and Want, which provides a detailed social history of British diet since the 19th century.  Independent scholar Laura Mason, who considers herself a « food historian, » has written several books that attempt to explore British food traditions as well, including Food Culture of Great Britain.  It is particularly telling that several of my informants are in the process of performing archival research and hiring historians to attempt to reconstruct such a scholarly history of regional food in the UK. Applications for the PFN program have encouraged such research on the part of applicants in many cases, as they attempt to prove reputational links between prospective PFN products and their places of production.