Some weeks ago, I read an article in which the maker of a French cola claimed that its product, like wine, is a unique result of terroir – for, unlike good old Coca-Cola, it features “less aggressive bubbles”.
I nearly sputtered coffee all over my keyboard.
It’s thanks to such wanton abuse of a beautiful concept that many, like my colleague on the following page, dismiss it as pointless and pretentious. But hear me out: Stripped to its minimum, terroir is simply the effect geography has on how produce tastes. Climate, soil type and even microbes play a role in this.
It’s an important concept to me and, when I eat something, I like to know where my food comes from – not because I’m a victim of absurd advertising gimmicks, but because I spend my weekends tending the garden and planning my meals around the produce it yields.
At the risk of sounding like a save-the-Earth hippie who dances around trees, I confess I feel a connection to the land I live off. If you spend days tilling the soil with sweat sliding off your forehead and your shirt clinging to your back, you will too. What is so pretentious about that?
The problem comes when “terroir” is used to market and glorify an item in an unrealistic way.
Like that Parisian cola brand that claims its bottled drinks have the varied complexity of wine.
When I visit a restaurant that specifies where its produce is from, it’s always a learning experience.
It isn’t about proximity or freshness, but the idea of tucking into something grown on unique land. Essentially, it’s about “honesty and community”, as The New York Times puts it, and how it’s a reaction against faceless mass production.
A chef once invited me to pop into the kitchen after an interview, where I watched him pan-sear some Hokkaido scallops. According to him, the scallops from that region are plumper, juicier and sweeter than elsewhere, but also cost more to order in. When asked how much more, he laughed the laugh of a chef who charges $40 for a plate.
So, when you see “poulet de bresse” on the menu, ask what’s so special about the chicken. Because someone, somewhere has brought forth produce with sweat dripping from his brow, subjected to the inclinations of climate and geography. And it certainly would have more to offer than “less aggressive bubbles”.