Terroir – what it is and why it matters!

Ah, le terroir.

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Originally from French, the word “terroir” has no English counterpart. In short, the terroir is simply the combination of physico-chemical properties that impacts everything that grows in a region. A multitude of factors such as the soil composition, annual rain and sunlight quantity, topography, biodiversity, or even air quality will affect to smaller or larger extent the characteristics of any plant that grows in a given place. For this reason, the exact same grape variety grown in Chile, Burgundy, or New Zealand will taste radically different. In turn, anything made with those herbs, fruits, or vegetables (cheese, meat, deserts, etc.) can also turn out radically different, although the process or recipe is rigorously the same. Just try to make some Romanée-Conti with Pinot Noir grown in Chile, and you’ll understand right away!

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Well, this was just the short (and easy) answer.

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The long answer is that terroir is much more about the pretty messy socio-cultural layer that lives and breeds on top of the definition above. The traditions, millennial-old history that are deeply ingrained within a particular region is what makes the notion of terroir so hard to define and so complex to grasp.

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According to UNESCO, the terroir is:

“A delimited geographic area within which a human community constructs, in the course of its history, a collective knowledge based on a system of interactions between a physical and biological environment, and an ensemble of human factors. ” [1]

As you can see, the terroir is then – above all – a discreet velvet glove to camouflage a strong regional pride. When applied to food, the know-how and traditions that come into making a regional specialty product will automatically be reflected into the final product, making it unique and impossible to reproduce somewhere else in the world. This is particularly important when applied to wine, artisan cheese, charcuterie, and many others. Indeed, the many regional specialties of each country are a primordial asset against globalization and the standardisation of food with its army of bland and soulless mass-produced goods that have entirely lost any connection to a specific place, tradition, or history. Sadly, this is one of the reasons a lot of the food in the developed word today has become industrial crap [3]. And also why you never ate real Kobe beef in Texas, although you most likely paid the full price [4].

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The international recognition and valorisation of those products is absolutely essential for the survival of those regions and their traditions, and the Slow Food movement (see the Terra Madre project) has been a strong supporter of this mission. Allowing the (often) rural communities to train and employ highly skilled local workers to keep producing those specialties will not be possible without strong support from governments and even more from us – consumers – that need to understand and acknowledge the inherent qualities and added value of those authentic goods. The terroir is then also a brand that can create economic and cultural value for those regions – but only if consumers understand this and choose to support these traditional and unique products!

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Now the question is, how to define formally what makes a product authentic or not? You might have heard of the AOC acronym (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) as in “Camembert AOC“, which has been used in France to designate those original goods. Likewise, the DOP/DOC/DOCG appellations in Italy strictly controls the quality wine and ensures you cannot make a wine with Sangiovese grapes outside Tuscany and still call it Chianti.

Yorkshire Yarg Selles-sur-Cher DOP Fermier

The EU Commission decided to homogenise the disparate, or sometimes vaguely defined, appellation systems under a unique and clearly defined system to promote and protect quality products and foodstuffs. The following EU schemes encourage diverse agricultural production, protect product names from misuse and imitation and help consumers by giving them information concerning the specific character of the products:

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Protected Designation of Origin – PDO:  covers agricultural products and foodstuffs which are produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using recognised know-how.

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Protected Geographical Indication – PGI: covers agricultural products and foodstuffs closely linked to the geographical area. At least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation takes place in the area.

en_STG_4c TSG

Traditional Speciality Guaranteed – TSG:  highlights traditional character, either in the composition or means of production.

We recommend you to check out the DOOR database (“Database of Origin and Registration”) which contains the complete list (with detailed production guidelines) of all PDOs, PGIs and TSGs recognised by the EU. There are today 1197 specialties registered, among which 566 PDOs, 588 PGIs, and 43 TSGs with more being added each year. Italy, France, and Spain are the absolute winners when it comes to protecting their terroir and regional specialties, with respectively 261, 208, and 173 registered products (PDO, PGI, and TSG combined). The following table gives you a little more detail of the appellations in these countries across cheeses and meat products (salted, smoked, cured)

Country PDO PGI Total
Cheeses (France) 44 6 50
Cheese (Italy) 45 1 46
Cheese (Spain) 26 2 28
Meat (France) 0 9 9
Meat (Italy) 21 16 37
Meat (Spain) 5 9 14

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In the end, what is *really* the terroir then? Can we isolate it as a chemical component, can we imitate it, can we put it in a bottle? Some would claim so, but your best bet is to bite into tradition and buy authentic products that have a soul. Next time you prepare your cheese plate, look out for those with appellations and give them some love! By no means we are saying that products without appellations aren’t worth it, quite the contrary! Because what matters in the end, is the actual product, its qualities, its taste, and its history, but just be sure you know what you’re consuming.

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There is so much more to be said about appellations, and so much content we’d like to cover. But for your sanity, and ours, we’ll end this post here. To help you better understand the subtleties and details of original products around the world, we’ll start in the next weeks a series where we share the stories behind the DOP’s of the world.

Further reading

[1] Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, By Sarah Elton

[2] List of French PDO Cheeses

[3] Most parmesan cheese in America is fake! Here’s why!

[4] Food’s biggest scam: kobe beef

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