On May 10,2010, our farm played host to a group of exchange students from Kuujjuac, QUE. While we were outside talking about the farm and our ecosystem approach to raising food, the kids were struck by the number and variety of birds flying around, everywhere we walked. Now, for those of you who don’t know where Kuujjuac is, it’s east of Hudson’s Bay, just west of Torngat Park in Labrador. A long, long way up!
One of the bird songs that seemingly punctuated every sentence I spoke, was a White-crowned sparrow. They arrive at our farm each year, around May 10th, and stay for a week or so. I pointed out to the kids that this bird had migrated up to our farm from it’s wintering ground in Florida, and was heading farther north to it’s breeding grounds, in, amongst other places, Kuujjuac. This was a very timely example of how interconnected our food systems are, and how the actions and attitudes of consumers in Kuujuac can impact on ecosystems and food production sytems in Sebringville, ONT, and vice versa. This is true of course, even if no food changes locations, for it’s the wildlife that inhabits those locations that are moving. If we, as farmers, are in such a rush to polish our public profile by calling ourselves “stewards of the land”, shouldn’t we at least bother to learn what else we share our valuable agricultural ecosytem with? It was a pleasure to host these kids and expose them to what we consider to be an example of how food should be crafted, with respect for quality, health, and the enviromnent. It was also a pleasure to let them taste something they could pick right out of the field and eat, fresh and healthy – spicy mustard greens!
Soil,climate, seed, and farmer all influence the flavour of food
Terroir’s original usage was to describe the effect that physical characteristics of a region had on flavour profiles in wine. I think it’s time to broaden the perspective of the term, and realize that the same principles apply to growing food as well. My belief is that once we embrace the concept of “terroir”, as it applies to food, it will provide a major marketing platform upon which to base an emerging agri-tourism industry, and will serve to further enhance the various restaurants that incorporate the idea into their cuisine.
We need only to look as far as the wine producing regions of Ontario, to see the remarkable success they enjoy in celebrating the unique characteristics of their areas, as expressed through their wines. Food growing regions should, I believe, use the same approach.
This has led me to develop the statement seen elsewhere on the website that says “There is no truer expression of a region’s unique combination of geography and climate, than the food grown in it’s soils”.
What follows here is a discussion of the concept of “terroir” as I see it, and how the various components can affect the flavour and quality of food. The discussion will be broken down into parts, according to the major constituents affecting “terroir”.
Perhaps most importantly, we must first recognize that “terroir” is far more complex than merely growing something in a particular region – this in no way automatically confers or guarantees “terroir”. As an extreme example, hydroponic systems, wether conventional or “organic” (and I’m not even sure how something that isn’t grown in soil CAN be organic), will never confer subtleties of flavour, related to climate, geography, and soil upon it’s crops. It therefore doesn’t matter where these operations locate, they are not connected to the land around them.
I like to use the analogy of a physics equation to describe “terroir”. One of the laws of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed from potential to kinetic and vice versa. Think of flavour as energy. The “terroir” of any particular region is locked up in potential energy, the potential to impart “x” amount of flavour in any crop grown there.
Four major factors influence the degree of transfer of potential flavour to a crop. They are: 1) soils, 2) climate, 3) seed, and 4) farmer.
The composition of a region’s soils has a huge impact of the flavour of the crops grown in it. We’re still measuring productivity of growing systems in terms of tons per acre, but perhaps we in the culinary industry should be looking more closely at the quality of food – does it taste good? Is it healthy? This, it seems to me, is the real value as far as consumers are concerned. The composition of elements and micronutrients in soil, influence sugar production in fruits and vegetables, soil biota such as mycorrhiza, further impart flavour. This is why winemakers like to grow grapes in mineral soils. Each region has a distinct combination of soils, and therefore, regional differences in the soil-borne contributors to flavour and nutrition of food grown in those soils.
cool, damp weather mellows brassica crops
The second factor in the “terroir” phenomenon, is climate. Climate has a role to play in imparting flavour to food, and climate also varies from region to region. Hot, sunny, dry days enhance sugar formation in vine crops such as canteloupe and tomatoes. On the other hand, cool temperatures and regular rains mellow brassica crops like brussels sprouts and kale. Frosts also play a major role, in triggering a biochemical reaction in root crops, causing them to convert starches into sugars, a natural anti-freeze mechanism. This latter factor is one of the main reasons that root crops imported from the warm south will rarely match the sugar content of frost-enhanced crops in the north.
The third consideration in the role of “terroir” and food, is seed, or, to be more specific, the variety of seed used. Heirloom seed varieties were developed when the primary genetic selection traits were flavour and colour. Today’s commercially available varieties are more often than not,bred for ease of harvest, yield, and resistance to bruising, all of which actually decrease the likeliehood of also having great taste, according to laws of genetic heritability. In fact, in many cases, the ‘modern’ traits selected for by breeders, actually reduce flavour, as in recently developed varieties of carrots and tomatoes. The seed varieties used by large scale growers are usually bred for ease of harvest and shipping distance. Because they are almost invariably picked by machine, and/or transported great distances, to large scale markets, these varieties are bred to withstand any number of physically punishing steps along the mechanized farming, cheap food production supply chain. This, unfortunately, does not a sweet carrot make!
Notable exceptions to the heirloom seed-is-tastier rule, are perhaps, green beans (modern varieties are less stringy), lettuces and greens, and corn.
Efficiency comes with a trade-off in flavour
Finally, the farmer decides how much “terroir” he’s going to allow into his food crops, through the management descisions he makes at each stage of the growing process. And each time the the farmer makes a decision in favour of efficiency, productivity, or profitability, he gives up some of the flavour potential from his fields. This is the central trade-off; the analogy of potential to kinetic energy. If you want to grow large amounts of say, carrots cheaply,you need a machine to harvest them. so you need to use a seed variety with strong, woody cores to withstand the mechanical pulling process that gets the carrots out of the ground. You also want to grow them on soils with little clay content, so they pull and wash easily. This then is the primary reason we find so many vegetables grown in sandy or muck soils. It’s EASIER to grow them there, not because they taste better in those soils. In fact, muck and sand soils have lower mineral and calcium levels than clay-loam soils. Less calcium means less sugar content, in general. Harvesting by machine also dictates the seasonal window you can get into the fields to harvest. Large machines can’t get in the fields to harvest in the Fall after the sweetening frosts have worked their magic on the roots, they tend to get stuck. The large-scale solution? harvest carrots earlier in the year. While it is possible to grow carrots to harvest in July, they will almost never have the same sweetness created by the frosts of September, that is, if the region they’re grown in even gets a frost.
The best wines are usually a product of a number of variables, many of which come under the heading of “terroir”. A skilled winemaker has an intimate knowledge of the flavour potential in the grapes he is using, and the soils and climate the grapes are grown in. He uses this knowledge to craft a product that best expresses these variables, and society generally agrees that this is a respectable craft. My hope is that we can restore the craftsmanship, knowledge, and regional identity to growing food, that has in large part, been stripped from the North American food system by the homogenization of agriculture since the end of the second World War. Farmers need to look further than producing a maximum weight of food per acre, and start looking at maximizing the quality of food, both in terms of flavour and nutrition (incidentally, I believe the health of the farm environment will follow). Only then can we justify to consumers our perennial complaint of not being paid enough for our food. We have to make demonstrably better food that’s also better for the food web we’re part of.
It’s February, and I’m late for placing my seed orders again. This growing season, we finished harvesting our leeks, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts Dec. 15, under a blanket of snow. With the barn full to overflowing with thousands of pounds of organic produce, I thought we’d never sell it all. Wrong! The economy seems to be waking up, and there’s a consumer interest in buying local/seasonal sweeping faster than a Canadian mogul skier!
It seems like just a couple of weeks ago we put our crops safely away for the Winter, yet now I have to start seeding the long-season plants for the upcoming year already. This is part of the reason we need such lead times to accomodate chefs sometimes. It takes a minimum of 110 days to grow something like winter leeks and Brussels sprouts, and some varieties of seed are scarce. For both reasons, letting me know what you want in January is better than August!
But I digress. The point I was going to make has to do with the Winter Olympics. As I compile my orders for our season, I’m struck by the sheer abundance of flavours and varieties of delicious, healthy vegetables we manage to coax out of our farm each year. As the orders get sent, I have a mental picture of the landscape of my farm, and it’s cornucopia, as though it were nutritional potential enegy in a physics equation, waiting to be transferred to kinetic through the act of seeding, growing, and harvesting. My order coincides with the Winter Olympics, so my mind is also filled with the images of athletes finally getting the chance to compete in the sports they have trained so hard for. Some acheive success, some, not so much. Since mine is a food-based world, I tend to think about what these athletes are putting in their bodies to fuel their training regimen and help acheive their maximum potential on race day (well, we do know that at least 30 athletes put something in their bodies they shouldn’t have, and so got to watch instead!). The first competition I watched on television was the women’s mogul event, in which Canada took Silver. The first three commercials that aired were, I kid you not, MacDonalds, Coca Cola, and Kraft Dinner. I’m sure Tim Hortons was represented within the next two or three commercial breaks. If Wheaties cereal used to be called the breakfast of champions, what would the aforementioned diet produce in our athletic system? My guess is diabetics. Are we not sending a signal to our future olympians that’s as mixed as a triple sowcow? Julius Caesar said (I think), that an army marches on it’s stomach. Along with training, an olympian conquers on his stomach, so we’d better start focussing on what we’re putting in it, and I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t be something you can drive up to a window and have dumped in your car. We stopped having tobacco companies endorsing sporting events due to health perceptions, maybe we should look at the next least healthy industry, fast food?
The following essay could just as easily been titled, “In Defense of Local Vegetables”, since the catalyst for the essay has been the various excuses not to use local vegetables, presented to me over the years. What follows then, is an attempt to address some obstacles still pervasive in the culinary world, and to shed some light on the differences among vegetables that necessarily confer differences in quality.
One of the most common obstacles to using more local and organic vegetables is that they are often more expensive to use. This is where the discussion of “value” begins. The reasons for the increased price are many, and it is rarely true that the farmer charging more must be making more money! At its simplest, the adage “you get what you pay for” applies. It has long been understood that wine reflects, in different degrees, the soil and climate of the region the grapes were grown in -terroir. However, exactly the same principles apply to farmed products, thus the statement, “there is no truer expression of a region’s distinct combination of soil and climate, than the food grown in it’s soils”. This is nowhere more evident than vegetables, and yet, in our recent rush to celebrate all things local, they are often the anonymous elements on a menu that takes great pains to tout the provenance of it’s protein, cheese, and wine. Why is this so? I believe there is a significant proportion of the culinary world that still assumes all vegetables of the same variety must taste the same, or reasonably so, regardless of the method of production or locality. Otherwise, I wouldn’t hear the argument about cost so often. The underlying premise being, “if all vegetable varieties taste the same (ie a carrot is a carrot), why not use the cheaper ones?”. This is usually paired with the notion that skilled hands in the kitchen can elevate any ordinary vegetable to the sublime. We wouldn’t assume for a moment that great wine can be made from inferior grapes, why would vegetables, which grow the same way, be any different? Vegetables that are grown with maximum flavour and health as a primary production goal, as opposed to efficiency or profitability, require more skill, time, and effort. Conversely, each time a market gardener makes a decision during the growing cycle of a vegetable that favours efficiency and profitability, he usually compromises flavour in the process. To accept the notion that all varieties of vegetables taste the same, is to make a dangerous assumption about the palates of your potential customers, since an extension of that argument is to assume that one cannot therefore distinguish between one restaurant or another, since the ingredients must taste the same. What then is the reason for that customer to choose your restaurant?
Ultimately, the price differential between well crafted, local vegetables and mass produced imported vegetables, on a per portion basis, is probably less than the bottle of water you are selling with the meal. Compared to the cost of meat, wine, and cheese, vegetables represent the smallest portion of the food budget.
Yet it is the vegetables that are so often economized on and glossed over on the menu, like the silky smooth reduction they may be covered in! Imagine the savings and other benefits to be had if we simply pared down the portion sizes of the rather meat-heavy plates that persist today, instead giving more profile to local, seasonal, and best yet, organic vegetables? The money saved on the meat would more than cover the increase in buying local vegetables, the plate would have a greater variety of flavours and textures, and would be healthier on a number of levels. In short, everyone would win!
The other reluctance to list local vegetables on the menu that I hear, has to do with the menu itself, as though it were a document chiseled in marble at great expense. Building flexibility into a menu is not a difficult proposition in this day of self-publishing software, indeed, it can be as simple as a chalkboard, an insert, or a well educated server, able to add to the dining experience by conferring his or her knowledge of the unique crops grown for that particular restaurant.
It is my hope that, as our food nation matures, we will reach a point where we realize that there are regional differences in crops, in the same way that there are differences in wines, and that this represents an emerging potential to develop regional cuisines, based around the most direct expression of each area’s growing characteristics, it’s vegetables.