At the Intensive Program for two weeks in Cluj-Napoca, students from France, Italy, Romania, Slovenia, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands study the relationship between traditional foods and micro organisms. Next week, they will receive lectures in micro-biology and they will go on a study trip to the mountains to learn about Slow Food in Romania. This week, they study traditional foods from a social science point of view, with lectures from sociologists and economists. Some of these lectures deal with how to market traditional foods, which are credence foods. Adding the category ‘traditional’ adds value/credence to the food, similar to the category ‘organic’ or ‘healthy’. An apple is not just an apple anymore but an órganic apple, which brings a world of associations and symbolic connections to the product. Once a credence food, it is vulnerable to cheating practices, how to distinguish the ‘real’ traditional food from its wannabee imitations? (see short BBC item on camenbert)
Of course, there are descriptions and definitions on what falls within the ‘traditional’ category or not, described too, at the EU level. They can clash with hygiene or food safety regulations and a number of classes in the course are about the typical product for fights around micro-organisms; cheese. However, innovations are not always a bad thing and whether or not to allow new techniques within the category of ‘traditional’ is a tedious discussion. It should not significantly alter the product. But what if the quality improves and the working conditions improve?
An example was given by our Danish colleague who presented a project on improvement of cocoa bean fermentation in Ghana. The traditional method was to make a pile of the separated beans and cover this with banana leaves and aerate the hot fermenting pile by hand. The result was a very varied quality depending on where fermentation was more successful in the pile. The project introduced new fermentation equipment, wooden baskets with enough openings, and techniques which homogenized the fermentation process considerably while also removing the hard work of digging into the pile. A higher percentage of the beans were successfully fermented giving farmers a higher income, the quality of the beans improved, removing some bitter tones in the chocolate. Everybody happy? Certainly the big chocolate companies involved, their costs for testing quality decreased while new marketing opportunities arose. Maybe it would upset advocates of tradition as in this project the traditional banana leave technique became obsolete.