Is Paying a Premium for European Foods Worth It?

New tariffs on certain wines, spirits, olive oil and cheeses from Europe have us wondering how much place really factors into taste

Spanish olive oil-main.jpg
Olive oils for sale at The Spanish Table at Seattle's Pike Place Market. Paul Christian Gordon/Alamy

Spain is the world's largest olive oil producer—responsible for an average of 44 percent of the planet's supply each year. But its exports to the United States have been on the decline in recent months (dropping by 36,000 tons since October), with tariffs affecting up to 50 percent of all Spanish olive oil entering the United States. The country's bottled-in-Europe extra-virgin olive oil is one of the many European “legacy foods” that are subject to a 25 percent tariff when entering the U.S., a tax that's been in effect since October 2019 and may increase up to 100 percent in the coming weeks.

The list of EU products these tariffs affect include single malt Scotch whiskies from the U.K., Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, and most wines from France, Germany, Spain and the U.K.—four countries being specifically targeted for providing what the U.S. declares as illegal subsidies to Airbus amid an ongoing Airbus-Boeing trade war.

It’s been more than 15 years since the U.S. first filed a claim with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against these subsidies, and in May 2018, the WTO finally ruled in the U.S.’s favor, opening a door for the Trump administration to impose tariffs of up to 100 percent in retaliation. Products that the European Union has labeled with a “protected designation of origin” (PDO), such as Pecorino Romano PDO, a hard cheese that—according to its PDO status—can only be produced from whole sheep’s milk in central Italy, have been specifically targeted.

Beyond that, there’s no real rhyme or reason to which products have been chosen—for example, extra virgin olive oils from Spain are on the list, but those from Italy are not. For consumers, this means that prices on such products may see a sharp increase, though so far the EU producers and importers have been shouldering much of the financial burden.

Kyle Davis, general manager of a company that imports Spanish extra-virgin olive oil from Spain, says, “Thankfully there's been a short-term collaboration between Spanish producers and American importers [to absorb the tax] to not lose their market share to competitors—but it's not something we can sustain indefinitely.”

With prices on these EU legacy food, wine and spirit imports poised to increase substantially, it has us wondering, just how much does place really factor into the things we're eating and drinking?

“It depends on the product,” says MIT food anthropologist Heather Paxson, author of The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. “But when we're talking olive oil, wine and cheese—it factors a lot. Place—this is something that's captured in the French notion of terroir—doesn't just refer to physical environmental conditions, but also to the tradition of cultural know-how and ways in which they intertwine to produce these 'products of distinction.' They are valued not just because they taste different, and possibly better, but also because they connect with a local identity.”

Is Paying a Premium for European Foods Worth It?
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese wheels are stored in Noceto, near Parma, Italy. Antonio Calanni/AP

Take Parmigiano-Reggiano, the Italian PDO and world-renowned hard cheese made with raw cow's milk. True Parmesan's sharp, nutty taste comes from the breed of cows, says Paxson, what they eat, the seasonality of the production cycle and the microbial environment where the cheeses are aged. “And then there's the skill embedded in these culinary traditions and this cuisine,” she says. “Does Parmigiano-Reggiano taste different from a similar cheese produced in Wisconsin? Of course it does.”

Spanish olive oil is another prime example. According to Davis, Spain is much hotter and drier than Italy and Greece, leading to less bacteria growth on the olives, as well as less insects—including fruit flies. “This means the use of less pesticides for both a cleaner olive, and a cleaner oil,” he says. As with wine, dry and warm climates can stress the vines—something that in small quantities is good for the fruit and leads to a much more concentrated and stronger extra-virgin olive oil flavor profile.

Gayle Pirie, co-chef and co-owner of San Francisco's long-running Foreign Cinema restaurant, agrees that place matters. “Geography plays a lot in the food we prepare,” she says. “Which is why we look to countries like Italy, France, Spain, Greece, etc, to satisfy our customers, who want to taste the flavors that make these regions special.”

This goes for imbibing as well.

“We have a whole selection of Scottish whisky, and roughly 60 percent of our wines are Eurocentric. They're products that are carefully crafted according to centuries of tradition and with the intent to keep a legacy alive. There's really no substitute.” If these tariffs continue, Pirie says they’ll likely have to buy less imports or raise menu prices, “though we want to keep the prices as low as humanly possible.”

While Matt Accarrino, head chef at San Francisco's Michelin-starred SPQR, concedes that no great substitutes really exist for Parmigiano-Reggiano or balsamic vinegar of Modena (not currently on the EU tariff list), he maintains that a lot of how you experience food has to do with your environment, such as eating maple syrup taffies at a sugar shack in Quebec or sipping Scottish whisky at a distillery on the Isle of Islay. “A lot of people who don't have any connection with the food industry will talk to me about an experience they had with food and they'll set the scene: for example, sitting along California's Tomales Bay with the breeze blowing, and watching as a fisherman shucks an oyster fresh from the waters in front of them,” says Accarino. “If you want the most memorable food experience, you go to the source.”

However, Accarrino adds, tariffs like these also offer both restaurateurs and consumers an opportunity to stop and reflect. “A lot of food is how it makes you feel,” he says, “and many of us have an emotional connection to French wine or Italian cheese,” from a Paris vacation we once took or an unforgettable meal. “These 'legacy foods' may serve as benchmarks and reference points [for our culinary experiences], but to rely on them solely?”

Accarrino already incorporates ingredients like locally foraged sea urchin, and bacon and quail eggs from Bay Area producers into SPQR's dishes, because “I'm very conscious that we're an Italian-inspired restaurant in San Francisco. Italians from Puglia in the south don't cook with cheeses from northern Italy. They use what's in their own backyard. I think that these kinds of tariffs bring into light that sort of culinary cycle where you can say, 'what do we have right here?'”

From a sustainability standpoint, Accarrino says that these sorts of tariffs force U.S. restaurateurs and consumers to re-focus on regional American food, which doesn’t have to travel 6,000 miles to reach their dinner table. “This is an opportunity to revisit the question, and it’s one that’s been asked a lot over the last few decades,” he says. “‘How do we support local farmers, producers, cheesemakers and artisans, and utilize the ingredients we find in our own backyard?’”

The tariffs may have a reverse effect, however, and cause restaurateurs and consumers to rely more on foods from agribusinesses, which have a major effect on climate change. “Anyone who is trying to do good by producing and purchasing sustainable foods and connecting with the lands—we’re the ones that this will hurt,” says Pirie.

Still, consumers have many motivations for paying a premium for certain foods from abroad, and will continue to do so even with a price increase. “It may be nostalgia,” says Paxson, “or that you can taste the difference. Or even that you have social relationships and a connection with the people who make them. These things are all as equally important.”

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.