The Place Behind Food

By Shraddha Chakradhar

Champagne from Champagne, Pinot Noir from Burgundy, coffee from the Paisa region in Colombia, and chocolate from the Tabasco region in Mexico. We are familiar with these and other such food and place pairings, appreciating and recognizing that if certain foods come from a certain part of the world, their flavor is different and often, more robust. While many of us may not recognize the differences between Pinot Noir produced in California and Pinot Noir from Burgundy, wine connoisseurs would likely be able to tease out the subtler notes that differentiate between the grapes that result in the varying tastes of Pinot Noir. This teasing out of subtle flavors, based on where the grapes are grown, is called terroir, or sense of place.

Wines from Bordeaux
(Photo Credit: Colin Filtran)

The concept of terroir originated in France to characterize the specific taste associated with foods from various regions in France. The concept was originally applied only to wine, given its high production rate in France and the diversity of wines around the country. Grapes grown and chosen for wine production in Bordeaux yield a different flavor than those grown in the Rhône region for Syrah, and so on. Recently, however, the term has begun to be applied to foods beyond grapes and wine. The flavors we attribute to coffee, chocolate, cheese and even maple syrup, are now being explained with terroir.

“What is important to remember is that terroir is a human-created concept,” said Amy Trubek, assistant professor of Nutrition Food sciences at the University of Vermont. “It’s how people relate to their food, so it varies from region to region.”

Taste is intimate, psychological and largely experiential. Sipping on chilled champagne in Champagne will likely be infinitely better than popping open a bottle made with the same kind of grapes this side of the Atlantic. But, according to terroir experts, knowing that place affects your tasting experience is half the battle. Terroir is still new to the United States, gaining popularity beyond wine enthusiasts only in the past decade.

And while the term is rather fluid, there are certain broad-reaching tenets of terroir that apply. Many terroir experts agree on a natural basis for the growth and production of the ingredients found within foods than the finished product.

“New York bagels or Seattle coffee are not examples of terroir,” said Rowan Jacobsen, a food writer and author of the book American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of our Woods, Waters and Fields. “But Louisiana gumbo is an example,” he added, citing the need for the seafood available in the surrounding waters to be included in the dish.

Historically, people have relied mostly on locally sourced food ingredients, but with the growth of agribusiness, what is local to an area is somewhat distorted. Beyond transportation of foods worldwide, growing produce, unless on organic farms, extends far beyond the regular growing season and the natural growing area.

A plate of succulent oysters.
(Photo credit: Jules Morgan)

Another characteristic of terroir that experts often cite is the proud relationship that people of a certain area have with local food. Maine lobsters, Vermont maple syrup and Wisconsin dairy are examples—in addition to being staples, they are representative of their respective areas of origin. In each of the above examples, tourism, interstate and international commerce are affected by the foods that only come from a particular region.

While terroir is largely anthropological, there is a scientific relationship between terroir and taste. Research has shown that soil type, for instance, or saltiness of water affects the taste of the food that is grown within that particular environment. Oysters, for example, take on the saltiness of their surrounding water. As expected, oysters harvested closer to the mouth of a bay are more salty from the confluence with ocean water than are oysters from further upstream within a bay. Fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay are now being encouraged to watch where they harvest, citing terroir (or now, merroir, for seafood). Similarly, the low amount of sulfur in the soil in and around Vidalia County, Georgia is responsible for the sweet taste in the onions that hail from that region. In contrast, the Muckland variety of onions from upstate New York is grown in sulfur-rich humus, rendering it more pungent.

Harvesting maple sap in Vermont.
(Courtesy of National-Archives)

The same is true for maple syrup. While maple trees grow all over the United States, the cold New England temperatures ensure that the trees store starch before winter hits. Come spring, maple sugar makers harvest the sweet sap that is the keystone of local commerce and a breakfast staple around the country.

For many terroir experts, including Trubek and Jacobsen, the appeal of terroir is about a sense of connection to a place. “There is a relationship between soil and taste, but the entire concept of terroir doesn’t rest on it,” she said. “People identify the food with a place and inherently establish some sense of identity to the place.”

Jacobsen argues further that terroir can help bring about positive change. “It’s a way to appreciate landscape. With fast food, the landscape is all the same, and so people feel disconnected from the land,” he said. “Now, with the growing need for sustainable agriculture and the rising popularity of local food movements, people seem to have a real hunger for meaningful landscapes.”

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