When the French term “terroir” comes up it is often on the tongue of a wine pontificate, carrying on about soil chemistry and its effects on regional grapes. And that is both important and true. But I want to further examine the term and how it applies to life beyond the beloved grape.
Terroir is a combination of geographical, agricultural and cultural definitions. Terroir gives identity to food. It reflects natural conditions like climate and mineralogical conditions, but also chemical conditions and human interaction. By using land to its full potential, farmers, vintners and other producers gain a better understanding of the idea of terroir. It is the je ne sais quoi in artisanal food and drink that is tangible, yet sometimes indescribable. Terroir offers uniqueness of place not just because of the physical makeup of a product’s origins, but because of the ways people interact with the product as well.
Wine expert Jancis Robinson tells us that no precise English equivalent exists for the term or concept of terroir. Certainly the French helped forge a path to understanding how ecology, culture, climate and tradition all play an important role in the production of craft food and drink. But the term terroir presents more of an idea than a definition.
Consider the Jamón ibérico, a dry cured ham made from the black pigs of the Iberian peninsula of Portugal and Spain. After weaning, these pigs are free to roam through pasture (the Dehesa) and oak groves, foraging on acorns, grasses, tubers and herbs. These hams are labeled according to the pigs diets and lineage. The more Iberian ancestry, and the more access to acorns, the higher the price of the hams, some of which cure as long as 3 years and cost as much as $1400 USD.
Let’s contemplate an extreme case of comparing and contrasting Iberico pigs to those of the industrialized American Midwest. What happens if we adopt an Iberian pig and put it on the Midwest diet of corn and soy? What happens if we house it in a small pen with lots of other hogs? What happens if we remove sunlight and dirt? Will we still be raising the same animal? Genetically speaking, yes. But are we raising the same ham? The answer is a definitive no. Even though the genetic makeup of the animal is the same, the terroir produces a completely different product.
We often confuse breeds of animals with the quality of animals. Menus wax poetic with buzzwords like Wagyu and Black Angus beef, Kurobuta or Berkshire pork, or the fatty Mangalitsa hogs. But we must consider the source of the animals. Any of them can be kept in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), or factory farms. When these animals are allowed to express their native habits and instincts while foraging about in their home terroir, their true quality shines through and we can appreciate why they are held in such reverence.
Partially to blame for the poor quality of our industrialized Iberico is stress in the animal. The pigs on the Iberian peninsula chow down on pumpkins and acorns in a natural environment before slaughter. You might call it Hog Heaven. When stress is added to an animal’s environment through overcrowding, rough handling, adverse conditions or botched stunning, the animals release adrenaline. This release of adrenaline uses up muscle glycogen. Postmortem, glycogen is converted to lactic acid and acts as a preservative by fighting off bad bacteria. The absence of glycogen can cause meat to dull in color, taste acidic, and affect texture in adverse ways.
Now let’s look at the not so extreme cases, where subtleties and nuances are what separate the good from the best. In Italy, a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) is required on prosciutto. Common PDO hams are the prosciutto di San Daniele and the prosciutto di Parma, the latter a lighter ham with a nutty flavor imparted from feeding pigs parmesan cheese rinds. Less common in Italy are the prosciutto di Toscano, prosciutto di Modena and prosciutto di Veneto. All of these dry cured hams - we call it "country ham" in the US - carry subtle differences based on their terroir. What they eat, where they roam, the temperature and humidity that they cure in, and the types of salt used to cure them all have an impact on the final product.
We need to further explore the concept of terroir in the USA. Terroir is a way to combat industrialization. It can not be replicated by the mechanized, industrialized food system. The differences between the country hams of Virginia and the country hams of Florida are palpable. Cattle living through Maine winters are going to be a lot different than cattle living through Southern California winters. Not better. Not worse. But different. This isn't limited to livestock. The same goes for oysters, cheese, wine and a myriad of other foods - sourdough in San Francisco, bagels in New York, Tennessee whiskey, etc.
What happens when we feed Florida pigs the oranges, corn and peaches that we grow in abundance? Florida oaks drop more acorns than our squirrels, raccoons and wild boar can keep up with. What happens when we add that to their diet? What happens when we cure our pork with local wildflower honey or Florida sugarcane? We have an agriculturally rich landscape that offers us an opportunity that is comparable with anyone else on the globe. As chefs and butchers we need to explore that opportunity. The terroir of Florida offers incredible potential to change our local food system. And it all starts by developing real relationships with the people who produce your food.
Send emails. Ask questions. Make phone calls. Stop asking Google for recipes and start asking your friends. Stop watching the Food Network and get in your kitchen. Invite your friends and neighbors over. Share stories and recipes. Experiment. Talk about terroir and the things that bring you closer to your food. It has a story to tell. And it's real. Because you can't fake proximity. And you can't fake terroir.