With organics the original plan was to stop the application of scary petrochemical poisons to the land, the food that grows on it, and the animals that roam it. A great idea, but people can hardly be blamed for wanting a little more than to be handed their cup of morning coffee with a cheery 'Poison-free, honey!'
Hence the recognition that there is more to organic food-growing -- from eating locally and reducing the use of polluting truck transport to the humane treatment of animals and knowing the farmer who grows your food.
What, after all, are organic eaters really in search of? Not just a sense of responsibility fulfilled, but a taste of honesty, of reality. A mouthful of the truth about land, water, and growing things. And the leading edge of that quest is called terroir.
Terroir, a French word that literally means 'land' or 'soil,' refers to a wine -- or, these days, a food -- that expresses the taste of the land, the very rocks, sun, wind, and rain patterns the food grows within, whether the land in question is a sizable region or a tiny microclimate. The grower who grows his or her product with an eye toward expressing terroir is saying: We have land here for which we have a long-standing reverence, and over generations we've figured out some things about it, and here is an agricultural product that communicates the soul of the land as we have come to understand it.
For terroir as it applies to wine, the first thing the cultivator does is match vine with land -- for example, gewrztraminer grapes and grenache grapes thrive in very different sorts of sites. The first step to farming a parched mountainside in a hot section of California is finding a grape that wants to grow there -- Zinfandel, let's say.
Using winemaking skills to 'extract' the terroir is the next step, and a really precise awareness of the territory is called for. Zinfandel from a particular site in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley that has, say, a dusty, dry volcanic soil, a direct marine breeze, and adjoining ridges of scraggly vegetation and eucalyptus trees might taste bright and concentrated (because of the California sun and quick-draining soil), brambly and minty (because of the surrounding botany), with a sea-mist edge (because of the minerals coming in on the breeze). It will taste unlike any other Zinfandel in the world, because that particular microclimate is found only there.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a Chardonnay grape planted in the limestone and oyster fossils that make up the ground of Chablis, France, will taste steely, mineral-rich, and stony. In the best case, it will be so stony that tasters will use a characteristic term of Chablis terroir: gunflint. Gunflint is considered a very good taste, and its most majestic expression is found only in those Chardonnay grapes planted on the ocean-fossil soils of Chablis. Flinty Chablis could never come from warm, fertile Northern California; lush, fruity, buttery, Napa Valley Chardonnay could never grow from the stark, cold vineyards of Chablis.
So, in various vineyards, the land is most eloquent when it speaks through the Chardonnay grape. But on a certain Illinois farm, the land might express itself most beautifully through a Brandywine tomato. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, it might be most clearly heard through a fresh ch?vre. And on a certain California river delta, that voice might sound best in a Suncrest peach.
Or consider artichokes. They love to grow by the sea, where it's in the 70s, sunny, and mistily breezy all day, and in the 50s and mistily breezy all night. If it's too cold, they'll die. If it's too hot, they'll die. Which is to say, they grow best right next to the sea in Southern California and in various places in Italy. Get an artichoke from Castroville, California, or from fields near Rome, and you'll experience the nutty, woody, grassy, meaty divinity of the artichoke. Unfortunately, scientists have lately been breeding artichokes that will grow in greenhouses and deserts. Try one of these and you will know what an artichoke would taste like if it were made of watery cardboard.
Note also, please, that pasture-raised dairy cows in Iowa make the magnificent Maytag Blue cheese, and nothing too thrilling comes out of Arizona factory dairies.
Terroir is the voice of the land as sung through agriculture. It is care for the land that sets certain delicious essences free. Terroir is where ethics and land stewardship grow together to produce sensual bliss. Watch for it in markets, restaurants, and fields near you.
Dara Moskowitz is an award-winning food writer for City Pages, an alternative weekly in Minneapolis. Her work will appear in Best Food Writing 2004.