DOP is one of the most important things to understand when learning how to cook traditional and authentic Italian food outside Italy. DOP stands for Denominazione d' Origine Protetta, in English this translates to Protected Designation of Origin.
What does DOP Mean?
DOP is a strict labeling of food in Italy to preserve and protect regionally produced foods from less superior versions. Select foods from Italy are regulated by the government and organizational bodies to ensure:
They meet the highest of standards,
They are produced within very certain regions that result in characteristics to ensure a consistent quality,
The ingredients and products come from a specific location and/or family that has been 'designated' by the government to produce such foods,
Every element of the product is quality tested and tracked with serial numbers to understand the exact origins, processing, and approval body of the product
What are some Examples?
There are many examples of DOP products in Italy. San Marzano Tomatoes, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, Oils, Buffalo Mozzarella, Parmigiano Cheese, Asiago Cheese, breads, produce, basil and other items can carry a DOP label.
Why Is It Important?
From an agricultural point of view, soil in different regions of the world impacts crops. This could be as simple as Mela Val di Non, an apple from Trento in Northern Italy, or as complicated as Parmigiano Cheese that requires each step of the cheese making process to be tracked, down to the location where the cows live, where their feed comes from, the location and processing of the milk to become cheese, to the quality testing to ensure the product aged without imperfection. Cows raised outside a specific area of Italy, even if they are located in the Emilia-Romagna region, are not necessarily considered qualified to produce DOP Parmigiano. Why? Because even if the producers follow the exact processing to create Parmesan cheese, if the cows are raised outside a very specific area, and eat crops from a different part of a valley - they are now outside the Protected Designation of Origin. Ultimately, those differences effect the outcome of the product and contain variations that change the product. In the simpler example, an apple that grows outside Trento - that apple will have different properties because the soil doesn't have the same properties as Trento. Therefore, the taste of that apple - while still an apple, doesn't have the characteristics of a DOP labeled version.
Why Did the Italian Government Decide to Create the DOP Label?
Impostors. It's really that simple. The popularity of Italian food around the world has created replicas that carry a name that is now far from the authentic version of the product. Our best example of this is the green can of "Parmesan" cheese. This grated cheese product couldn't be further from the original Parmigiano - even if they dyed it purple. Taste a DOP Parmigiano and then the cheese product that comes from the green canister - and anyone will understand the difference. Another example is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. A true DOP Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, or Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Emilia-Romagna is held to rigorous standards - requiring specific aging, approved barrels, approved family lineage, specific bottles provided by the governmental body (as you can see in the picture) and other requirements. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of the population has never tasted a DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar - it's actually quite rare and extremely expensive, so much so it's actually called "Liquid Gold". It's thick, deep in flavour, and has oak properties due to its aging requirements. So, what you buy at the grocery store uses a similar grape variety, and may actually come from Modena, the region in Italy where DOP Balsamic Vinegar comes from, but since it doesn't follow every step of the required and tracked process, it is does not carry the DOP label.
What is IGP?
IGP is an equally important designation, although it's less strict in nature. IGP, Indicazione Geografica Protetta, translates to Protected Geographic Zone, or essentially - that the product traces back to one, by not all, of the requirements of DOP. Whereas DOP tracks every element of a labeled Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, down to numbered barrels, IGP Balsamic Vinegar only tracks portions of it.
What Should You Look For?
Easy. Any DOP product contains a label and a serial number. It could be a label on the product, or an etching into the rind of the cheese. If you can't find this, then it's not DOP.
What if It Says Made In Italy
Made In Italy products are a great second choice to DOP or IGP products. Italian products are often considered the highest of standard, and products that are wholly or in part Made In Italy can demand attention, and sometimes, more money. If your product says "Made in Italy" it could have been processed in Italy, manufactured in Italy, grown in Italy, partly made in Italy, or even the entire product is from Italy - but remember what we just said - it could just be partly Made In Italy. So all of the product might be Made In Italy, but perhaps not. This is common when buying olives -
often the olives are from the neighbouring region of Spain (which should be noted produces some of the best olives in the world), but they are processed and manufactured in Italy. The jar may be labeled Made In Italy, and effectively they are - but those Made In Italy olives are actually Spanish olives processed and packaged in Italy. Make sense?
What to look out for ...when a product says it's "Italian" it effectively means nothing. There are no standards around the word Italian, and essentially it just means this is "Italian style" or "Italian inspired" but might actually be from New Jersey.
Is It Worth It?
This is a matter of preference and usage. DOP San Marzano Tomatoes have a completely different flavour that San Marzano "style" tomatoes. DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar has a completely different flavour and texture than 2 year aged balsamic that you'd put on a salad. However, you would never put a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar on a salad, it would be considered a waste. DOP means you are paying for quality and quality control. A higher quality product will mean you can use less of it since it will have more robust flavour, so while DOP products might be more expensive, they will go further in your dish.