Rowan Jacobsen | The Taste of Place

Rowan JacobsenMy neighbor Paul has a field that grows great carrots. That’s a good thing, because Paul makes his living off that field, but it’s also a bit of a surprise. At first glance, you wouldn’t expect it to grow great anything. It looks too high, too cold, and too poor. The soil is little more than ground-up schist. After a rain it looks like old pavement. Only after you’ve lived there for years and learned to read the land, as Paul has, do you start to recognize what works there.

Paul’s place is called High Ledge Farm, with good reason. It’s the kind of glacially scoured, hardscrabble New England hill farm that was settled only once all the choice river floodplain was taken. But it has wonderful character. The site has good exposure and drainage, so it dries out quickly and prevents the carrots from bursting open along a seam, which happens when carrots get too much water and try to grow too fast. “Vegetables are just crunchy water,” Paul likes to say. “Sometimes they can’t keep up.”

The best thing about the carrots is the taste. They’re amazingly sweet and flavorful, a little more carroty than most. They have a distinct bright flavor, and Paul thinks he knows why. “This soil is really mineralized. When we tested it, we were off the charts for magnesium. I’ve always felt that higher mineral content made things taste better.”

Paul might be on to something. Magnesium ions are what give certain mineral waters their refreshingly tart taste, which is a pretty good way of describing these upland carrots. Then again, they are less uniform in appearance than river-valley carrots grown in deep, rich soil, which don’t have to punch their way through and around rocks. Some people would argue that those lowland carrots are superior. For our purposes, what matters is that they are different. Same carrot seed, same year, two different farms, two different carrots.

That’s all you need to understand to begin to explore the idea of terroir, a French term, usually associated with wine, that can be translated as “the taste of place.” (Don’t worry about sounding like Inspector Clousseau when you pronounce it; just say “tare-wahr.”) Like terrain and territory, it stems from the Latin word terra, earth. It’s a new concept in the world of gastronomy, yet it’s not a new idea. If you grew up in the country, your family may have loved to get its sweet corn from a particular farmstand. There were lots of choices in the area, but Farmer Brown’s corn always tasted better. There was something about Farmer Brown’s land—the soil, the water, the microclimate. He had the best spot, and he had the best corn.

That’s terroir. And it’s that simple. No one would argue that site conditions don’t affect how things grow, that certain areas consistently produce better-quality food than others. My goal in writing about terroir is to demystify the concept, to wrest it from the sticky clutches of wine writers, and to present some shining examples of great foods that are what they are because of where they come from. Rather than any sort of encyclopedic coverage, I’ve chosen a handful of foods to explore in depth. By understanding their essence, we can begin to understand our attraction to it, and maybe even learn a little about our place in the world.

A certain conservative European school of gastronomes believes that the Land of the Golden Arches is incapable of producing foods or drinks that embody a particular “somewhereness,” but I believe that North America, with its dazzle of terrains, climates, and cultures, holds terroir to rival Europe’s. We have a long way to go to tease out the best ways to express the terroir of many places, and an even longer way to go to cultivate a society that appreciates the attempt, but the past few years have seen such a blossoming of enthusiasm and creativity that I feel confident in asserting that American terroir’s time has come.

From salmon in Alaska and apples in the Yakima Valley to chocolate in Mexico, coffee in Panama, cheese in Vermont, and wild mushrooms in Quebec, terroir ignores political boundaries, but pays close attention to geological ones.[1] Terroir almost invariably finds its roots in bedrock, in the workings of tectonic plates and glaciers, along with the realities of climate and geography. For this reason, my favorite work on terroir is not from the bottomless vat of wine writing.

But terroir encompasses more than just geology. The great wine writer Hugh Johnson said it best with a beautiful definition in his foreword to James Wilson’s 1998 book Terroir: Terroir, of course, means much more than what goes on beneath the surface.  Properly understood, it means the whole ecology of a vineyard: every aspect of its surroundings from bedrock to late frosts and autumn mists, not excluding the way a vineyard is tended, nor even the soul of the vigneron.”[2] It’s a partnership between person, plant, and environment to bring something unique into the world. The soil and climate set the conditions; the plants, animals, and fungi respond to them; and then people determine how to bring out the goodness of these foods and drinks.

The spectacular richness of king salmon, for example, comes from the years it has spent stocking its body with the raw materials necessary to complete one of the most extraordinary journeys in the animal kingdom. We catch those salmon just as they begin that journey—we co-opt that vitality. Understanding this, you can’t help but feel respect, even reverence, for the salmon on your plate.

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