A popular word among foodies today is terroir, a French word literally meaning soil. It is used in a very particular way when applied to wine or food. The word first became popular among wine writers for expressing that je ne sais quoi of place that gives a grape its particular and unique taste and characteristic, based on the soil, climate, fertilizer and horticulture of a region or micro-region. My French-English dictionary gives the definition of terroir as “tang of the soil.” That’s an awkward definition and only captures half the story. Yes, soil is important, but it is more than that.
It’s also more than and different from the popular food trend known as locavorism. That mouthful means the desire to eat locally-produced foods, preferably grown within 100 miles of your home. Terroir has yet to become an “ism” but it may soon be the newest food trend if the recent publication of Rowan Jacobsen’s “American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields” is any indication. Jacobsen would like to launch a “reign of terroir” to improve American culinary habits.
Culture and soil combined create terroir
Terroir is uniqueness of place, what gives the food from that region a particular taste by virtue of what the soil brings forth, either in terms of the grass a cow eats that makes for a unique cheese or how a tomato grown in that place tastes by virtue of the particular nutrients contained in the soil. Nevertheless, it is more than just soil and climate. It is the application of the methods, techniques, habits and customs of a culture when it interacts with its soil for the purpose of growing food. Not just that of the farmer and vintner, but everyone else who is involved in transforming that food into a cuisine.
That might mean how a French grandmother, let’s say, snips the asparagus growing in her kitchen garden. What form of organic matter does she turn into the soil bed, and what does she use for nitrogen and potash additions? How much sand does she mix in the soil, and where the sand comes from? And, finally, it is meaningful that she grows asparagus at all.
It is important this place, this terroir, that defines a food. A story about an experiment with the exchange between the Italian Chianina cow and the Texas Longhorn illustrates the concept of terroir. As the story goes, the Tuscan Chianina breed, originally raised in the Val di Chiana, was brought to Texas to be raised. In turn, enterprising ranchers brought the Texas Longhorn to the valleys of Tuscany to begin its new life. The Chianina is a celebrated cow raised for beef and used in famous dishes such as bistecca alla fiorentina. The Chianina has two impressive characteristics: It grows quite large, and perhaps the largest cattle in the world, as one bull some years ago weighed in at 4,000 pounds. Second, it reaches that size quickly, more quickly than other beef on the hoof.
The experiment did not work. The original taste of both breeds changed in their new environments. The reason was the grass they ate in Tuscany and the grass they ate in Texas were different. It all came down to the grass. Tuscan grass was different from Texas grass. However, there were other factors too.
In countries that have strong culinary traditions, meaning most of the Old World, the culinary patrimony of the land is as important as national honor. It is not only worth preserving for these people, but it helps define who they are. A person who does not have a strong opinion about cuisine is a person without a cuisine.
We can see this phenomenon in the otherwise lowly carrot. Two of the three Crécy’s in France: Crécy-la-Chapelle in the Seine-et-Marne department, and Crécy-en-Ponthieu in the Somme department, are known for their carrots. So much so that any French preparation with that description — Crécy — means it is made with carrots. Carrots grow best in sandy soil that is chalky or well limed. The soil should be loose and friable with equal parts sand, peat moss, and sifted, limed, and fertilized compost. The Crécy’s have such soil as to make these carrots special.
However they have more: they have several centuries of history of carrot growing, they have a perfect cold climate, they have proximity to Paris, which is a major market for the carrots. They have farmers and cooks who care, they have a tradition, and they have a culinary patrimony to protect and export.
This is what terroir means, and there are thousands of examples around the world but pitifully few in the U.S.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.