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Re-inventing food: Alpine cheese in the age of global heritage.

Re-inventing food:Le fromage alpin à l'ère de la globalisation du patrimoine.
Cristina Grasseni


This article, based mainly on ethnographic examples of the transformation of traditional Alpine cheese-making systems, argues that a certain amount of standardization of traditional food systems is required in order to offer local products on a wider market basis. Nevertheless, this introduces important changes in the whole socio-technical system that underlies typical products: from raw material to product marketing. This also implies momentous changes about the ways in which local foods are produced, distributed and consumed, as well as in the ways they are socially and symbolically appropriated. Such reinvention of food can further mobilize local strategies for re-valuing intangible patrimony: local histories, material culture and landscapes. This is a complex and interconnected process, as highlighted by ethnographic examples provided – both from my own fieldwork and from current ethnographic literature. When food is reinvented as heritage, historical, juridical and logistical details count. This is particularly apparent in my ethnography of an Alpine valley of Northern Italy, which I interpret against the backdrop of a focused literature review providing an underlying theoretical perspective about the role of food in the age of global heritage.

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1The aim of this article is to show - both through my own and other authors’ ethnographic literature - how the concept of cultural/ immaterial patrimony is being applied to local foods in diverse ways and market circuits. First, a literature review will provide some relevant theoretical concepts to contextualize the heritage dimension of food in a local/global perspective. Then I shall make reference mostly to my own fieldwork on Alpage cheese in Northern Italy, showing how the rediscovery of local foods is relevant both to the marketing of tradition as heritage and to local development. The thick description of the Alpage cheese case will thus be used as a point of view to make general considerations about how local food production systems may work as social systems, with reference to the process of heritagization which is particularly apparent in the Alpine world. The central hypothesis is that within circuits of heritagization, food is being rediscovered and reinvented: both as a means of local development and as a bearer of collective territorial identities. Nevertheless, this process requires a certain amount of standardization of the food itself and of its publicized images. For instance, marketing food as local heritage may be tied to marketing a place as a stereotypical icon of the rural landscape with touristic appeal (Grasseni, 2003).

2In this introduction, I wish first to dwell on the concept of standardization of a typical product, and on its glocal dimension. Typical products are a contradiction in terms, or an oxymoron, as the Italian anthropologist Cristina Papa has argued (2002). This results from the convergence of two distinct and contradictory processes: on the one hand, as confirmed by the extraordinary success of niche food, market demand currently calls for organic and traditional foods, even more so if both aspects can be claimed together (including, for instance, raw milk cheese of certified origin and zero-mileage food or farmers' market foodstuffs). This phenomenon can be a symptom of a widespread consumer desire for better quality, which would be found in the peculiarities of local contexts vis-à-vis the standardization of mass-produced foodstuffs. On the other hand, the diffusion of appreciation for local peculiarities makes rediscovery of local products potentially a global phenomenon in itself. Zygmunt Bauman (1998) stresses how globalization valorizes the local in a cultural sense, but constructs it as tribal. The consequent reallocation of value and stigma at the local level may well thus follow rules and dynamics that are largely external and globally decided by the market, international agencies, or national and international law. A glocal side of food reinvention may involve new strategies of self-re-invention and novel readings of local histories, landscapes and skills, based on the potential mobility and attractiveness of local foods. But some of the most recent ethnographies on social production and social experience of food show how perception of food quality and the guises of its social distribution and appropriation are inherent to relevant networks of social relations. Food standardization, in other words, is felt not only in economic terms, but also in symbolic and cultural terms. It is not only a movement towards more regulation and accountability, but also an increase in uniformity and in homogeneity, as opposed to diversity and variety – as I shall argue in the body of the article.

3Whilst globalization marks a passage from variety to standardization, current and recent ethnography in the Alpine region witnesses several local strategies that aim at regaining a margin of rootedness and of diversity to local products, which can also be appreciated in marketable terms (Aime 2001, Allovio 2006, Jalla 2006, Kezich and Viazzo 2004). In the following section, I shall present five ethnographic examples from Alpine Northern Italy, with specific reference to traditional systems of mountain cheese-making, and in particular to the practice of the alpage.  Alpage cheese is produced only in summer with milk obtained from cattle grazing on high altitude pastures, as a result of the transhumant practice of taking herds to higher grounds during the hot season, leaving the village base so that hay can be made and stored for the winter.

4My fieldwork on the transformation of alpage cheese started in 1998 with two years of participant observation of the alpage season in the region Lombardy, during which I made an observational film about the life of my host family on the upper pastures of Valtaleggio, Those who don’t work, don’t make love. I argued that their practices of cheese-making were only apparently marginal and residual, and that the transformation of their skills and tacit knowledge in the face of technical modernization (through breed selection, milk pasteurization and the bureaucratic vagaries of geographical denomination assignment processes) was significant in understanding the whole change in their alpine practice of place-making – both from an ecological and from a cultural point of view (Grasseni 2009). Since then, my fieldwork on the transformation of alpine cheese and of its ecology of practice has continued and expanded, including the case study of Taleggio of Valtaleggio, of Strachitunt of Valtaleggio and of Bitto of the Valli del Bitto (Grasseni 2007). These three types of mountain cheese have followed very different paths in terms of their commercial recognition, transformation of production and success in obtaining a geographical denomination. My fieldwork on the transformation of traditional systems of cheese-making has thus spanned about a decade and has mostly involved participant observation, in-depth interviews and conversations with cheese-makers, local administrators, agricultural technicians and cow-breeders of these valleys. In the last couple of years, this relationship has developed into co-research, with active collaboration with the Ecomuseum of Valtaleggio and research involvement with alternative food networks striving to reconstruct local food production and distribution chains through a collaboration of associations such as Slow Food, local ecomuseums and grassroot movements of critical consumption and co-production (Grasseni, in press).

5I refer both to case studies of other ethnographers and to my own fieldwork, to argue that current strategies for re-valuing food as intangible patrimony in the alpine world are a catalyst of momentous changes in relationships and lifestyles, specifically from the point of view of the standardization of diversity and of identity- and boundary-construction.

6These brief examples refer to ampler, published case studies. I present them here for the sake of showing their significance against the backdrop of three possible theoretical models of what I call a system of global heritage. These models are those of “global structures of common difference” (Richard Wilk), of a “global hierarchy of value” (Michael Herzfeld) and of “audit cultures” (Marilyn Strathern). The case studies and theoretical models are presented in the same section because I wish to show how they may interact. The examples highlight aspects that could not be derived from a theoretical model, but present complex and concrete scenarios that generate relevant issues.

Alpine cheese in the age of global heritage: “structures of common difference

7In the Italian Alps, the global-local dynamic sketched above has brought about complex and contradictory effects, especially with reference to the construction of a public imaginary that sees the mountains as a repository of typical foods. I shall refer here to three theoretical models that can help in focusing on particular aspects of this process.

8Richard Wilk (1995) has defined "structures of common difference” as a social re-organization of diversity that implies a degree of cultural reification. The concept has been widely employed to critically analyze various ethnographic cases, from Wilk's own study of beauty pageants in Belize to the schooling system in Aotearoa (New Zealand, Musha Doerr, 2008). Ethnographers usually focus on strategies of avoidance and resistance, on exceptions and erosions of hegemonic cultural frameworks in idiosyncratic and local ways. Wilk though, seems to maintain that the "structures of common difference” function regardless of the properties of the objects involved. In other words, it is the symbolic and social framework of their own circulation that bestows different meanings on the objects themselves. "Their coherence", insists Wilk, "lies in the circuits" not in the objects (1995: 117). Moreover, the connections created between objects are not due to their mimetic similitude but to the fact that they all fall within a homogeneous system of communication which elaborates on their difference. When such structures are not locally determined and elaborated, but become global, the cultural impoverishment and the decreasing agency of local actors can be palpable.

9This model allows us to grasp some of the current processes underlying the heritagization of typical products. I argue that this is the case in the transformation of alpine cheese, but the processes involved are widespread and the model can be applied to other products and areas.

10In the field of food production and consumption, global structures of common difference promote distinction and diversity, but only of certain types. They organize diversity selectively, rather than wiping it out. I have referred elsewhere to some of these transformations as "calibration" (Grasseni, 2007). By this concept I refer to the fine-grained, critical passages through which gestures, routines, working environments and protocols of production change in the process of standardization. In my own study of the reinvention of mountain cheese as a typical product, this process includes several fundamental transformations of the contexts of production: the formalization and regimentation of production protocols - especially in view of obtaining EU acknowledged geographical denominations (PDO or PGI labels); an innovative input, which often comes from outside traditional contexts of production, such as, technical advice in the chemistry or logistics of cheese-making (such advice is needed to standardize production routines and in order to guarantee hygiene standards in the working environments, for instance by adopting self-monitoring auditing techniques such as HACCP flowcharts); selection of raw materials (which can be stabilized with cultivated ferments, in order to calibrate the final product to the average consumer's taste).

11These changes are incorporated in local practice and discourse in ways that originate veritable technologies of standard localization. As Heather Paxson has argued, there is no real comprehension of the notion of terroir without understanding the "micro-biopolitics" of cheese. In "post-pasteurian" times, milk is de facto "de-territorialized" (Rogers, 2007), namely deprived of its natural bacteria. In other words, the contingent processes of milk contamination, from contact with the environment to processing tools, to maturing departments, is erased whilst milk itself is sterilized before processing. Re-territorialization (on the microscopic scale) comes in the shape of cultivated ferments being inserted in the curd. This very process, which allows sterile milk to develop a sufficient microbic life for maturing molds in cheese, is in fact, itself, a standardizing step. Cultivated ferments guarantee the consistency which customers supposedly ask for, but greatly reduce the scope for local variation (Paxson, 2008, Grasseni, 2007).

12Alpine cheese is thus increasingly produced in typical environments, but in standard ways. Local policy-makers at national and European levels, entrepreneurs and producers become agents of this glocal innovation: namely a systemic transformation of a whole “socio-technical system” (Latour 1999) that affects both the micro scale (i.e., the re-organization of agricultural and artisanal production and the consequent changing social roles and competences of the producers) and the global level (i.e., offer-and-demand circuits and relevant distribution channels).

13The effects are often hard to foresee. Risks include: the increasing dependence of regional economies on world market dynamics, disregarding local sustainability (as shown in example 1); the loss of local knowledge and landscape-management skills (as shown in example 2); an increased degree of micro-conflicts at local level due to the heightened competition between producers (as shown in example 4).

The standardization of difference (examples 1 and 2)

14Richard Wilk talks about "a globalizing hegemony" that "is to be found in structures of common difference, which celebrate particular kinds of diversity while submerging, deflating or suppressing others" (Wilk, 1995: 118). In the Alpine world, an analogous process has happened in the realm of biological diversity through breed selection in animal husbandry, affecting especially the dairy breeding of cows and goats. Through inbreeding and artificial insemination, herd improvement programs have exalted certain traits, but strictly in functional terms. Dairy cows, for instance, have been selected for higher productivity and functional longevity (aiming at avoiding hoof and udder infections, which are connected with a sedentary lifestyle and an increased milk production).

15The accompanying disregard for energy and logistic costs, as well as for the environmental peculiarity of the mountains, has induced some heavy transformations of local natural and cultural contexts in the Alps. These include import of hay as a standard practice and the accompanying relinquishment of meager pastures, substitution of grass with fodder in the cow's diet and the invasion of steep pastures with shrubs and bush. Some other results of the application of models of intensive breeding to mountainous terrains begin to be felt in terms of water pollution - even of alpine wells - due to the excessive accumulation of nitrogen-based substances in manure, and to the unsustainable practice of overabundant introduction of liquid manure in open fields. This practice is caused by the fact that intensive breeding requires larger stables, concentrating a higher number of animals in one place in order to rationalize daily routines such as feeding, milking and cleaning up, where most of these routines are at least partially automated or machine-aided. The animals are bigger, since cows are selectively bred for a larger productive capacity, they are overfed and exercise little. Their manure is thus collected in large tanks that need depleting routinely. This practice is common-place in Valtaleggio’s most advanced dairy breeding sites (Corti, de Ros, Bianchi 2005).

16A second example of how standardization affects difference, in the Valtaleggio valley, has become gradually apparent through ethnographic observation conducted over the last decade. I have elaborated elsewhere on the significance of road networks for the sense of place and the social processes of identity-construction of this alpine valley as a crossroads, rather than as an enclosure (Grasseni 2004, Grasseni 2009 esp. ch. 2). Here, I would like to add some brief considerations on the environmental and cultural transformations induced by the introduction of high-altitude roads for the practice and significance of the alpage tradition.

17When the lowest part of the high pastures of Valtaleggio, Sella, was reached by a road (at an altitude of around 1,200 meters), these could be used as hay-making fields. In other words, instead of taking the animals to the pastures in order to graze the grass, the grass could be cut by machine and made into hay, to be transported down to the village stable by tractor. This allowed for tremendous changes in the seasonality and in the pattern of labor division within the families of breeders tending these pastures. For about sixty years until 2000 my host G.L. (born 1932) would spend two seasons at Sella: early June (to make hay by hand on the most productive pastures, whilst the cows would graze on the more meager ones), and in October-November or until the first snow to eat up the hay collected and stored on the spot in June. He would thus spend up to a trimester each year away from the village home. He would stay in alpine lodgings in June with part of his family helping with hay-making and dairy cows (usually a sister or, later in life, a daughter-in-law, and a younger helper: a young son or nephew, or, still later in life, a grandchild), and then again in Autumn by himself with heifers and pregnant cows (which do not need milking and hence do not require additional help).

18Now that hay can be cut and stocked in one place in the village, this complex ecological and relational practice has shrunk to just a few days a year, which G.L. spends in June at Sella on his way to the upper pastures, where he still spends the whole of July and August with grazing cattle because hay-making by machine is impossible there.

Alpine cheese in the age of global heritage: auditing in the “global hierarchy of value

19"Global structures of common difference" is not the only possible framework through which we can characterize the age of global heritage, with reference to the Alpine world. A second model of how standardization affects difference can be found in Michael Herzfeld's concept of a "global hierarchy of value" in his work on the transformation and demise of artisanal forms of knowledge (Herzfeld, 2004). To explain the hegemonic pervasiveness of the global hierarchy of value, which amounts to its very invisibility, Herzfeld says that "its very vagueness constitutes one source of its authority ... while it often appears as a demand for transparency and accountability" (2004: 3). In his work on the transformation of Cretan artisan workshops and products, Michael Herzfeld defines the global hierarchy of value as an “increasingly homogeneous language of culture and ethics” that “is everywhere present but nowhere clearly definable” (2004: 2-3). The most interesting aspect for a characterization of a system of global heritage is the fact that it applies to artisanal products, work and workers in such a way that it changes processes and relations from within: “even “diversity” can become a homogeneous product. So, too, can tradition and heritage: the particular is itself universalized" (Herzfeld, 2004: 2).

20This phenomenon has been elsewhere analyzed as "audit cultures", and authoritatively criticized (Strathern, 2000). Marilyn Strathern charted this new "kind of culture on the make" as a socially, morally and politically pervasive form of innovation, named after "new accountabilities" (Strathern, 2000: 1). Apart from the explicit concern with the effects of this new kind of formalistic accountability on moral reasoning, ethics and the credibility of enterprises, audit cultures apply to artisanal products, such as alpine cheeses, as a kind of universalization of the particular. As Herzfeld put it, in the demise of artisanal culture, diversity becomes a commodity and what is "typical" is subjected to standards. In order to be acknowledged as such, tradition must be translated into a form of patrimony - even if immaterial or diffused.

21The emergence of a global set of practices that are "confined to no single set of institutions", but are rather rooted in financial and accounting routines, prescribes economic efficiency and self-evaluation in terms of "good practices" (Strathern, 2000: 1). Because of the ways in which these are implemented and engrained in the texture of local and everyday practices, though, audit cultures become "rituals of verification" that, as such, are "almost impossible to criticize in principle" (Strathern, 2000: 3). Strathern proposed to treat audit according to an anthropological approach, namely to "think of audit as an actant" (Strathern, 2000: 5), in Bruno Latour's sense - that is as an object (in this case a practice) which is endowed with power and agency of its own. One particularly cogent example is that of quality control checks, for instance applied to milk. Their ubiquity and proliferation means that they can be applied equally stringently to G.L.'s alpine lodge in the upper pasture, as in any industrial dairy characterized by a high degree of automation and churning large quantities of milk and derivates. HACCP flow charts and protocols of production well correspond to Strathern's "audit cultures", whilst experts never cease to remind us that consumers expect a consistent product, that is recognizable on the shelf and on the palate.

22As Eleanor Rimoldi (2000: 92) puts it, protocols for control checks tend to become "the measure of all things", with grave implications for the ways in which they actually mould professional and training practices (including apprenticeship, transforming a seamless experience of involvement in skilled practice to one of digesting units of learning and checking separate competences). On the contrary, though, the local contexts of alpine cheese-making entail vast amounts of tacit knowledge which are absorbed through experience (Polany, 1966) (whether in copper cauldrons upon a wooden open fire under a tent on the high pastures, or straight from milking at the cow's body temperature in a stone-roofed alpine lodge, or in the mechanically stirred and gas-heated vats of a tiled dairy). Anyone in the dairy industry will pledge that cheese-making is not only a question of knowledge transfer, but a personal "art" that one inherits, intuits or even improvises. Despite its aura of absoluteness, transparency, and neutrality, quality checks eschew from acknowledging social situations that are unique to contexts, to personalities and relationships - which can and have been investigated ethnographically.

Food heritage in the Alps as an evolving complex system (example 3)

23A telling example of how techniques are not determined by the environment, nor by ethnic or social propensities, but are rather the complex result of these and other elements historically evolved, is to be found in the work of historical anthropologist Pierpaolo Viazzo, and other scholars such as Stuart Woolf, Giovanni Kezich, Marco Aime and Stefano Allovio. Case studies by these historians and anthropologists of the Alps adapt the global model of heritagization of alpine cheese to the peculiarity of local historical cases.

24In the research conducted with Mariangela Bodo and Michele Musso on the historical transformation of dairy production in the Lys valley, Viazzo (2002) studied transitions in modalities of cheese production in Val d'Aosta. Here a traditional distinction holds between an alpine dairy practice à grande montagne, producing fat fontina cheese for the market through associative practices of alpage grazing and cheese-making, and a different alpine dairy practice oriented towards self-consumption, à petite montagne, aimed at the production of skimmed tome cheese and butter by an individualist, family-based conduction of pastures and cattle. Historical research has demonstrated that such distinctions are not geographically determined or dictated by the characteristics of rich rather than meager pastures, nor is the communal vis-à-vis individual management of the pastures an ethnically congenial practice of Roman populations vis-à-vis Walser ethnicities. The alternation between long periods of continuity with sudden and diversified phases of transformation traces a complex cartography of dairy production practices and traditions in the westernmost part of the Italian Alps, alone. Such diversity and historical change can only be explained by taking into consideration a multiplicity of factors: from juridical and historical ones (including land tenure laws in Walser colonies) to demographical and economical ones (such as seasonal migration, but also tourism).

25In the case of mountain cheese, according to historian Stuart Woolf "it is evident that an economy entirely based on self-consumption never existed in Europe, at least after pre-history” (2002: 13), and so it would not make sense to talk about a transition from subsistence economy to market economy as if they were separate or antithetical. Nevertheless, it does make sense to investigate, in this case as in other comparable ones, the effects of the passage “from the production of a moderately varied range of artisanal cheese aimed at local consumption, to the production for the market of cheeses that, in this last half-century, have established themselves internationally as cheese of recognizable quality" (Woolf, 2002: 9).

The reinvention of food: boundary-making (example 4)

26Producers invest a lot of discipline, money and personal prestige on self-evaluation and on external audits in order to define a precise production protocol, to guarantee a standard and consistent taste and to disseminate an appealing visual presentation of their cheese.

27From the use of sterile tools to the hygienization of processing environments, from the auditing of production protocols to the certification of recipes through geographical denomination, from the definition of specific boundaries for typical productions to the legal and marketing branding of those boundaries, a number of complex steps progressively calibratealpage cheese to a “global hierarchy of value(Herzfeld, 2004).

28As I have attempted to show in the case of two Lombard cheeses from Valtaleggio in a book-length study (Grasseni 2007), the entire production contexts must undergo momentous changes, in order to “reinvent” mountain cheese as typical products. In brief, in order to demonstrate and certify the cheese’s historical and geographical origins for obtaining a protected geographical denomination, a consortium of producers have to commission archive studies and establish the historical boundaries of its authentic production. Specifically, boundary construction and claim for a specific product identity are key elements in the social construction of food as heritage. Often though, such boundaries have been porous and subject to change, especially in conjunction to practices of long- and short-term transhumance.

29A telling example of the importance of networking and lobbying for local food preservation is that of the Bitto delle Valli del Bitto.This has been held up by Slow Food as an example of bottom-up reaction to the pressures of intensive agriculture, global logistics and political subservience towards the standardization of mountain farming practices. Around this alpage cheese, produced in the valleys north of Bergamo and in Valtellina, Slow Food has engaged in what the president of the Slow Food Foundation for biodiversity has named "the mother of all battles".

30Since 1996, the Association "Produttori di Bitto delle Valli del Bitto" ("Producers of Bitto cheese from the Bitto valleys") has engaged in a lengthy and costly standoff against the Consorzio Tutela Bitto Casera della Valtellina, the official consortium for the protection of the geographically denominated Bitto cheese. The consortium, backed by the locally strong Catholic farmers’ trade union, is accused by the original producers to have increasingly enlarged the area of production to the point of making it into a lowland-like cheese. They argue that the consortium has been consistently lenient to the lowland dairies, with the objective of selling Bitto cheese that is not made in high pastures and has less and less goat milk content. The original producers strive to maintain traditional areas of production (strictly the summertime high-pastures) with traditional recipes and routines of production. These include cheese-making on the pastures straight after hand milking, under makeshift tents built around traditional roofless stone structures (called calécc), with a ration of at least 10 to 20 per cent of goat milk.

31Allowing a larger terroir to be trademarked as Bitto, or a higher percentage of cow milk in the product, would benefit the average lowland producer from Valtellina, as argues the farmers’ trade union. Nevertheless, this happens at the expense of a niche production which advocates the values of local heritage, of biodiversity and authenticity. The very set of changes which benefit the average local farmer (who does not practice the alpage season on the high pasture and breeds cows rather than cows and goats) would inevitably distort the nature of Bitto cheese and dumb it down to a more conventional product - this is what the original producers association claims. Therefore, they accuse the farmers’ trade union of demagogy, in the name of a stern upholding of heritage and tradition. They also claim that this is a question of economical sustainability and not only a question of traditionalist radicalism. They claim that on the long run, changing the local cheese into a more conventional product will destroy the distinctiveness of locality, thus erasing the very edge that traditional producers from Valtellina can claim on niche food markets.

32This scenario shows how the most conservative traditionalist can easily coincide with the most radical innovator. For Bitto producers, who are also cattle breeders, maintaining traditional feeding and grazing methods has meant not adhering to widespread programs of breed selection that aim at increasing productivity, but generate bigger and frailer animals that do need nutritional supplements and are often unfit for life outdoors on high mountains (see example 1). Traditionalists sometimes invest on genetic biodiversity by reintroducing native breeds and monitor their productive results with the help of scientific research centers. We often find these entrepreneurs in networks of critical consumers or in well-organized associations such as Slow Food, an important interlocutor, with whom they discuss logistics, negotiate production protocols and obtain marketing visibility.

Food as heritage in the media construction of the Alps (example 5)

  • 1   Vice president of the Chamber of Commerce Arnaldo Redaelli, book presentation of La reinvenzione (...)

33Certainly the point of view of logistic and retail operators cannot be left out of the food heritage scenario. My fifth example comes from the world of food retail and restaurant operators. A representative of Lecco's Chamber of Commerce declared at the 11th edition of Ristorexpo, one of the major events in the Northern Italian calendar of professional fairs devoted to gastronomy and catering, that "small, family based enterprises are not a detriment to the economic system. On the contrary, due to their capacity to add vocation, innovation and authenticity to the food system, they are a precious resource. This territory is characterized by micro firms which contribute to diversity and tradition, but not without complication". "Tradition", "culture", "values" and "know-how" were all quoted as contributing to "patrimony and territory", and promises were made: "The role of the Chamber of Commerce is that of creating spaces for the role of diversity through a culture of diversification, supporting products traceability and the availability of local foods to local institutions such as hospitals"1.

34The very fact that a trade event was interested in presenting an academic book on the reinvention of food, moderated by a popular nationwide radio presenter (himself an expert on wine) is telling of how strongly felt is the issue of food as heritage in Italy today. It is widely discussed amongst professional operators. The issues of distribution and price are some of the most heated spots, together with how to establish a "culture of quality" amongst consumers as a strategy for protecting national foods. Traceability, codification and labeling are also invoked as a way of upholding not only consumers’ rights, but also high prices for quality foods.

35But there is a thin line between the genuine sense of loss that local operators bring up when they mourn the disappearance of unique recipes, regional products and traditional know-how, and the promotional celebration, to the point of exaggeration, of local custodians of taste or rather masters of food.

36The very same G.L. who appeared in my monograph on Valtaleggio, Developing Skill Developing Vision (see example n. 2), has recently gained notoriety as "the savior of Strachitunt". This natural blue cheese from Valtaleggio, which someone has compared to organic blue Stilton, has been proposed for a PDO since 2002 and seems to be now on its final way to receiving it. Both because of the lengthy procedure, and because of the local administrators' determination to identify the valley with its natural blue cheese, since 1997 G.L. has featured in countless photographs, TV programs, and promo videos, and has been invited to tasting workshops, professional events such as Slow Food's biennial Cheese in Bra and Turin's celebrated Terra Madre.

37This media exposure does not come without a degree of self-folklorization and the acceptance of a performed identity of the authentic peasant. In an area far from the Italian Alps, Lois Stanford has observed and criticized similar politics of culinary tourism amongst indigenous rural communities. In Mexico, whilst traditional gastronomy is challenged by the standardization of crops and by the spread of commercial genetically modified seeds (especially corn), governmental projects support gastronomia tradicional. Apart from the obvious mismatch between the lack of consistent national policies in defense of biodiversity and the re-launch of regional gastronomic identities for tourist purposes, here lies an even deeper underlying paradox, which Stanford highlights. The women of Michoacán are invited to present and perform their cooking skills at fairs and tourist events, where they perform themselves reverting, for instance, to wearing traditional costumes. Their very front-lining, though, sets them aside from a community of practice who takes care of gardening and gathering ingredients for those very recipes. Touring and performing has therefore ambivalent outcomes in terms of social hierarchies and knowledge loss. A traditional recipe is only meaningful within a whole chain of production, which also includes the practices and knowledge of foraging and growing that are not preserved nor represented in ad hoc performances (Stanford, in press. See also Stanford, 2006).

38Analogously, in the Italian Alps a proliferation of glossy publications finds place in tourist offices, newsagents’ shelves and vendors' stalls: atlases of typical products, guides to ecotourism and didactic farms, books of recipes, catalogues of food-artisans, maps of typical products, wine- and cheese-roads and even cheese identity-cards. On the one hand this communication exposure is contributing to recognizing food as a fundamental part of local heritage, on the other hand it turns into an object of spectacle for urban audiences.


39In the history of anthropology, the Alps have been encountered as a residual stock of European diversity: linguistic, ethnic and folkloric (Viazzo, 1989). Nowadays, geographical denominations, the search for authenticity and preference for food with low ecological-impact, seem to find in the alpine environment a natural candidate for a repository of culture and bio-diversity. As a result, a widespread commercial appreciation of local "saperi e sapori" (knowledge and taste) leads to read anew local histories and territories, often oversimplifying complex evolutions of local systems and networks of transhumance into simple notions of rootedness and tradition.

40In this hegemonic context, the concept of cultural heritage or intangible patrimony is being applied to Alpine cheese in ways that both valorises it and transforms its fabric and contexts. The process of heritagization requires a certain amount of standardisation of the food itself and of its publicised images. I have argued that significant transformations of production, perception, representation and consumption of alpine cheese are entailed in its rediscovery as cultural heritage. Here, I have mentioned five examples of how the process of heritagization demands translating diverse local histories of cultural and environmental adaptation (from seasonal migration to marginal agriculture) into global standards of good practice.

41Alpine cheese lies at the intersection of many issues, five of which I have raised through previous ethnographic examples: the unsustainability of intensive models of farming, the environmental embedding of systems of cultural management of local resources; the historicity and plasticity of such systems; the cultural appropriation of food as a symbol of identity and belonging in processes of boundary-making; and its commodification through new discourses and circuits of image-construction. From being a local artifact, rooted in the practices and environments that produce it both physically and socially, alpine cheese gets progressively dislocated in the global networks of marketing and logistics as well as in techno-scientific and legal controversies.

42Studying the many guises of transformation of alpine cheese means gaining an understanding of much wider contexts beyond the milking shed or the alpine lodge - such contexts range from milk’s microbial life to European policies on food certification, to the cultural construction of distinction. This is because the “socio-technical networks” (Latour 1999) in which alpine cheese is enmeshed include agricultural aid and juridical frameworks, the idiosyncrasies of bureaucracy and local robustness of allies and custom, seasonality and technoscience.

43Food – cheese in this case - is ethnographically interesting because of its pivotal capacity of drawing many crucial aspects of life together, including the senses, memory, tradition, everyday practice and habits, professional skill, the relationship with power and bureaucracy, and the market as a driving force of globalised communities. Wilk, Strathern and Herzfeld, amongst others, provide theoretical models that help understand the heritage dimension of the alpine cheese by illuminating the fact that, here as elsewhere, ecology is not natural but situated, and that heritage-value is acknowledged as part of a political negotiation that entails implicit notions of classification and of quality. These often include conflicting criteria for boundary definition as well as an active silencing of alternative strategies of value construction.

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1   Vice president of the Chamber of Commerce Arnaldo Redaelli, book presentation of La reinvenzione del cibo,19th February 2008.

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Electronic reference

Cristina Grasseni, “Re-inventing food: Alpine cheese in the age of global heritage.”Anthropology of food [Online], 8 | 2011, Online since 16 May 2011, connection on 01 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Cristina Grasseni

Università degli Studi di Bergamo (Italy),

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