The Role of “Terroir” in Food

Soil,climate, seed, and farmer all influence the flavour of food

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

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

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.

2 Responses to “The Role of “Terroir” in Food”

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