Does the flavor of a particular food invariably transport you back to a certain place? Maybe it’s a strictly subjective association, such as any and all raspberries reminding you of your grandmother’s sunny patch where you picked the succulent ruby morsels for her every summer. But your flavor memory might have a more objective basis: You may recognize, say, sweet golden Colorado peaches because they truly do acquire a unique identifiable taste that derives from the specific location and conditions in which they’re grown. The latter experience is the essence of the notion “taste of place.”
In French, le gout de terroir denotes this concept of a flavor’s inextricable connection to the geographical region where it was produced, with its concomitant soil type, drainage, topography, microclimate and even cultural customs. And in France, terroir traditionally is linked most closely to wines and the locales that influence their flavor, body and other special character-defining features. The French wine classification and ranking system institutionalizes terroir by precisely stipulating geographical boundaries, acceptable grape varieties and vineyard procedures for regional wines.
But terroir has broader applications beyond the wine industry. France and other European countries already employ the model for cheeses, and the term is less formally extending to other foods – olive oils, coffees, fruits and vegetables. The increasing development and promotion of high-quality specialty food products has significant implications for farming and marketing economics around the globe.
Recently, I spoke with two W. K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellows who are focusing on the growth of terroir here in the United States. Both are interested in the creation and expansion of environmentally sound, health-promoting, community-based food systems but, because of their individual backgrounds, approach these issues from somewhat different vantage points. Arlin Wasserman comes to them as a political economist with expertise in natural resources and public health. As policy director at the Michigan Land Institute, he has worked extensively in the areas of land use management and environmental policy. Amy Trubek is an anthropologist specializing in food and culture and a professionally trained chef. As an educator at the New England Culinary Institute for the past eight years, she has created curriculum regarding U.S. agriculture and the global food system and focuses on discerning chefs’ role in recognizing and demanding quality ingredients.
These two researchers agree that taste of place is hardly a novel idea in this country. Regional foods – determined by the growing conditions of separate geographical areas and the culinary customs of the inhabitants – are what Americans ate before the development of the interstate highway system and predominance of long distance shipping. Megafarms and agricultural homogeneity came later, along with the loss of crop diversity and soil and water degradation. Today’s small-scale farmers have a tough time competing with this agribusiness trend. Their best asset is ingenuity – and selling products with ample information or education that highlights their special nature, which often includes “place.”
Wasserman gives an example of a small-scale farmer in his own Leelanau County who produces quality Northern Michigan wines and fruit brandies, and, in the process, offers high prices to his suppliers, local fruit growers. At the same time, this farmer also preserves agricultural land, prevents urban sprawl and provides employment. Wasserman describes this as “new entrepreneurial agriculture, a blend of small-scale farming and business practices that eschews middlemen and sells finished products directly to customers.” Although the result of new ventures such as this may include transporting regional specialties back and forth across the country and even beyond our shores – it also strengthens the viability of small-scale, local agriculture.
American regional cuisines also are undergoing a revival thanks to enterprising, enthusiastic chefs who recognize the inherent value of fresh, locally produced signature ingredients and promote them on their menus. Trubek cites the overwhelming success of the Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, a 220-acre family farm that sells its high-quality produce directly to chefs throughout the country. Discriminating taste and identification of quality, healthful food is one prerequisite for taste of place success. Growing concern for food safety is another plus for this movement, because consumers’ knowledge of where their food comes from adds to its value.
Furthermore, Wasserman believes that promoting taste of place may even help tackle the rapidly escalating problem of obesity in this country. In his opinion, Americans’ increasing tendency to overeat may partly ensue from dissatisfaction with underflavored foods. Food producers resort to overprocessing and high calorie ingredients – fat and sugar – to create the “slightly sweet, moist” sensation that consumers crave but rarely find in bland-tasting commodities shipped from afar. Combined with inactivity, the excess calories could jeopardize health.
Wasserman doesn’t advocate the wholesale dismantling of the present food economy. On the contrary, he sees great value to the terroir movement in maintaining the sophisticated food transport systems developed by agribusiness. Shipping high-quality but geographically distant small-scale food products can be effective only with an extremely efficient transportation mechanism in place to preserve their precarious freshness and flavor. He notes the important part that co-ops play by showcasing local products, providing a regional or even national sales network, and educating consumers.
Hand-harvested native wild rice is an especially well-suited taste of place product for the northern heartland. And locally produced artisan cheeses are other Minnesotan terroir treasures.
Susan Jane Cheney is the author of two cookbooks: Stir Crazy! and Breadtime.
She is a former member of the Moosewood Collective.