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, 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
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.