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What is provenance?

You may have heard the word provenance coming up rather a lot lately in relation to food – particularly gourmet produce. It’s certainly becoming a more and more popular way to describe the origin of a certain food – or in other words, where it was grown or reared.

Traditionally provenance is used in reference to artefacts, art or items which are valuable due to their historical significance or even because they were owned by someone famous. It is defined as ‘the place of origin or earliest known history of something,’ and in this context the history of the ownership and transmission of the object gives it more value or authenticity.

So too with food, knowing the origin or history of a product one is going to consume is valuable – firstly to know if it is healthy and nutritious and secondly if you are interested in its sustainability or the ethics of it’s production.

For the conscious consumer the carbon footprint of food, the transparency of product supply chains, the use of chemicals and land  management and the ethical treatment of animals raised for meat have become a more and more important factor in determining purchase decisions.

As a result, some food producers are focusing more and more on their product story and those willing to offer complete transparency of production make the consumer a more valuable offer – if they can afford it. Investing in storytelling and marketing is not always viable in primary production. Farmers markets and boutique producers who already have an earthy story and a direct supply chain on their side are capitalising on their ability to serve the consumer with a healthy dose of provenance along with their organically grown fruit and vegetables, handcrafted gourmet produce and ethically-raised grass-fed meat.

Of course the notion of specific origin, and it’s relationship with taste, is not new, and is typically talked about in wine production. The French use the word ‘terroir’ to describe the unique natural environment in which a particular wine is produced,  encompassing factors such as the soil, topography, and climate – but also local knowledge and tradition. Wines of specific terroir such as Burgundy and indeed Champagne are recognised for their specific taste and valued for their uniqueness and authenticity – their provenance. (Although in the case of the latter the word has become distorted and misused in modern culture.)

Throughout Europe the notion of terroir or provenance applies not only to wine but more widely to food products developed as a result of hundreds of years of tradition blended with produce grown in the area. A deep sense of pride is attached to local fare – and the importance of regionally specific food products and even dishes is fiercely defended. Products like Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinegar from Modena are world-renowned for their provenance and their supremacy remains unchallenged.

Back in Australia, where our food heritage is a smorgasbord of cultural influences, the value of provenance is often underestimated.  Sadly it is cheaper to buy a can of tinned tomatoes hand-picked in the rolling Tuscan hills, transported to a factory by truck, processed and canned into a 16gms of forged metal then shipped thousands of kilometres to your local Aussie supermarket than it is to buy a bag of tomatoes grown up the road. It’s not just ironic – it’s a tragedy for our local food producers.

Local food entrepreneurs trying to carve a niche with a unique product, or small growers selling a simple story of sustainability and low food miles drown in a food landscape flooded with less expensive offerings floating in from all corners of the globe.  In a sea of high volume imports our local growers need our support to keep them afloat – and provenance plays an important part. Without the story and the history, the connection to our food is lost – and we end up buying the cheaper counterpart, because it’s easier – and well, cheaper. Without provenance we forget its true value and without provenance we can’t proudly call it our own.

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