map image credit: Mary Elder Jacobsen
Savoring the Flavors of Our
Woods, Waters, and Fields
By Rowan Jacobsen
The term terroir has been used by different people in very different ways, and there is still a lot of confusion about what it includes. For example, locavores tend to get enthusiastic about terroir as a means for promoting local foods, but regionalism, tradition, and terroir are not the same thing. Manhattan clam chowder, Montreal bagels, and Seattle coffee are not examples of terroir. Cajun gumbo is, as it’s a dish that evolved to celebrate the best of what the land had to offer (crayfish, sassafras leaves, and so on). And though tradition is often a good indicator of terroir, especially in Europe, where they have had centuries to work out which agricultural products do best in a given place, terroir need not be traditional. Some of the best American wines come from new and surprising places with no grape-growing history.
To understand how the idea of terroir has morphed, why it has such power, and why it is only now being embraced in America, it helps to know the history of the concept, which is undoubtedly as old as agriculture itself, or possibly older. Did early hunter-gatherers notice that the shellfish near the mouth of a bay were saltier than those near the head, or that the fruit in the south-facing valley was bigger than that on the shaded, north-facing slopes? How could they not? From there, it’s an easy path to detecting increasingly fine distinctions from increasingly specific locales, and then to endlessly debating their respective merits.
Although the French get credit for concretizing the term, they certainly have no monopoly on the concept. The Greeks of 2,500 years ago favored wines from the Aegean islands of Chios and Thásos. The Thasians even had rules governing the production and distribution of their wines that are not unfamiliar to today’s French appellations. The Thasians dried the grapes they used to make wine and boiled the must to produce a high- alcohol, sweet, nearly black wine of excellent repute. The wine could not be watered down before shipment (as was done with many other wines). The amphorae that carried the wine (also made on Thásos) even had to be of a uniform size.
As a rule, the Greek and Egyptian wine trade stamped any amphorae with the location and vintage of the wine it contained. People cared. If the concept of terroir was alive and well in ancient Rome, it still took the French, with their fondness for regulations and hierarchy, to systematize it. In the Middle Ages, many of the best vineyards in Burgundy were carefully worked by Cistercian monks, whose standards were impeccable. They made their best wines from the Pinot Noir grape, and Burgundy wine developed quite a name, thanks to their efforts.
Over time, certain regions of France developed fine reputations for their wines, and some of these areas even became synonymous with the wines. Champagne is the most famous example, and in fact the Champagne vignerons were the first to seek name protection from the French government, in the early 1900s. Of course, lots of other places could produce a sparkling white wine if they tried, and they did, calling it “champagne,” which to many people was synonymous with sparkling wine. Thus the Champagne houses desired to protect their brand. They made a good case. Their region had a unique climate and an unusual chalky soil created by marine organisms sixty- five million years earlier. It couldn’t be “Champagne” unless it came from Champagne. The government agreed.
Today, in continuing efforts to regulate quality, the rules sometimes cover everything from allowable yields to aging techniques. Starting in 1990, they also expanded beyond wine to protect everything from Camembert cheese and Bresse chickens to Corsican honey and even Puy lentils. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, and Germany all have adopted similar systems.
Yet these traditions, as codified in the appellation systems of Europe, can also be stultifying. Because the ingredients and techniques for making things like Champagne and Roquefort cheese are set by law, nothing changes. Innovation is rare. It’s reassuring to know that Roquefort will always be Roquefort, but it’s also predictable.
In America things are different. Perhaps because we have less history, because we are immigrants and our connections to the land aren’t so rooted in family ancestry, we are less interested in what the land has been or has meant and are more excited about what it can do. If our terroir is immature, it’s also youthful, with all the energy and exuberance that brings. If you want to tour the museum of old terroir masterpieces, go to France and Italy. If you want to visit the galleries where new artists are trying new things, look around America. Indeed, something extraordinary and unprecedented is happening.
You see it in more and more food markets, farmers’ markets, and restaurants: a spontaneous upwelling of passion for beautiful foods and the way they are made. Most observers thought that the artisan food movement would come and go, that people would tire of the expense and inconvenience and return to the supermarket. They didn’t understand that the trend was answering a deep, pent-up desire. Though this passion feels new, it began, like so many other contemporary trends in American society, with the seismic shifts of the 1960s.
In the United States, characteristically, the reaffirmation of the countryside came from a rebellion against government, first in the back-to-the-land movement of the forties and fifties, and then in its love child, the sixties. From naked hippies on Tennessee communes to virtually naked vegetables on plates served at Berkeley, California’s Chez Panisse, a new veneration of the land and the simple life arose. Earthy was in.
Yet, in a way, it didn’t take. Sure, we reminisced about our Bohemian youth and went to Chez Panisse for a special treat, but meanwhile our diet and lifestyle were getting farther and farther from any connection to place. We lived in cookie-cutter suburbs and ate at Chi-Chi’s. Even if we were part of the minority who still cooked regularly, we used supermarket ingredients that, in the process of being moved around the world, had had their identity whitewashed as completely as any participant in the witness protection program. And it wasn’t terribly satisfying. I believe that our recent interest in the terroir of wine—and, by extension, of local food—is simply one manifestation of a much more fundamental desire. Maybe you have to be disconnected from the earth for a generation or two to truly appreciate the profundity of being connected to it.
Or maybe you just have to be burned enough times by the current system. As Mateo Kehler, cheese maker at Jasper Hill Farms in Vermont put it, “the whole industrial food system is failing. It’s hugely successful on one level, and on another you’ve got salmonellatainted tomatoes and E. coli spinach.” When a single E. coli–laden hamburger bought at Sam’s Club, as documented by the New York Times, contains fresh fatty edges from Omaha, lean trimmings from old cows in Texas, frozen trimmings from cattle in Uruguay, and heated, centrifuged, and ammonia- treated carcass remnants from South Dakota, maybe it’s time to start paying attention. Maybe it’s only natural to feel that a single food should come from a single place and taste like it.
When most of us were more or less responsible for getting our own food, whether farming or foraging, reading the landscape was essential to survival. Understanding how it worked, and how to work with it, was no elitist activity. At the core, our interest in terroir is an enduring desire to partner with a landscape, survive on it, and live well.
At some level, our survival still depends on somebody knowing how to nurture the many living things we depend on. Most of us have outsourced this knowledge to thousands of rural people we will never know, but that doesn’t mean we are any freer from the earth. It just means we can no longer make the connections. Ultimately, that’s what meaning is— grasping the connections between things.
We are some of the first people in history not to have built-in connections to the land we inhabit, not to be able to take comfort and pleasure in its verities. Paying attention to terroir is one of the best and most enjoyable ways to reestablish the relationship. It can teach us much about who we are, why we like what we like, and how we go about living on this earth. It can allow us to rediscover a romance that is exhilarating, fortifying, and real.
Rowan Jacobsen writes about food, the environment, and the connections between the two. His work has appeared in the Art of Eating, the New York Times, Harper’s, Newsweek, Eating Well, and elsewhere. He is the author of the James Beard Award-winning A Geography of Oysters, Fruitless Fall, and The Living Shore. www.rowanjacobsen.com
Selected from American Terroir by permission of Bloomsbury USA .
Copyright © 2010 by Rowan Jacobsen.
Edible Dallas & Fort Worth is a quarterly local foods magazine that promotes the abundance of local foods in Dallas, Fort Worth and 34 North Texas counties. We celebrate the family farmers, wine makers, food artisans, chefs and other food-related businesses for their dedication to using the highest quality, fresh, seasonal foods and ingredients.