Vine in the Tarn

Vine in the Tarn

I taught a class yesterday to a group of American university juniors that included a discussion of terroir, that term everyone uses and, I am beginning to suspect, few understand.

What makes me say this? The total blankness on the face of my smart students as I dove into the subject. Eventually one spoke up. “I just never thought about food this way. I never knew it could be local or seasonal,” she said. “I am sure that my mother never gave this a thought when I was growing up.” Others in the class nodded.

How could they give this a thought, I realized, without the tradition of local and seasonal foods, and when their idea of a meal is something grabbed on the run between classes, chosen from the school cafeteria, or related to increasingly distant memories of mom’s cooking?

Normandy Terroir with apple trees

Normandy Terroir with apple trees

In an effort to simplify the matter I went to The Robert Collins dictionary for its translation of terroir, which is “soil”. I was surprised – the definition isn’t wrong of course, it’s just not complete. Terroir IS soil. But it’s also air, hillocks, and mountains. It’s the underground arteries that bring water to the well; it’s the rain that falls in February after the hail has just battered the winter wheat, and right before the snow. It’s the feeble sun of March and the blazing heat of August. Terroir is the cow dung that feeds the apple trees; the rolling roar of traffic down the autoroute that slices through orchards and pastures. It’s the thousand tiny insects burrowing, flying, sucking, spitting out their contributions and their poisons. In short, terroir is everything that goes into those leafy greens, those fat and juicy grapes, that tender cut of beef and every other cultivated food that arrives on your plate and in your mouth.

What makes it so vital and fascinating, so important and necessary to comprehend, is the way terroir affects what we eat. Terroir is capricious – it can change in a matter yards. I have friends in the Dordogne, for example, whose red soil and exposure is perfect for walnut trees and truffle oaks. Their neighbors down the road can’t make a truffle oak grow for all the money in the world, but their beans beat my friends’, hands down. It’s a question of micro-terroir – the soil and atmosphere change at the bend in a road, a dip in the landscape.

Truffle Terroir, la Dordogne

Truffle Terroir, la Dordogne

Guy, my farmer friend with the walnuts and truffle oaks, put a fifty-pound bag of potatoes in my car right before I left to return to Normandy. Eaten side by side with Norman potatoes was a revelation – the same variety, two completely different tastes and textures.

Tarn Terroir in winter, with vines

Tarn Terroir in winter, with vines

My friend Astrid, in the Tarn, makes a wine that bathes the taste buds in velvety berry flavors, while her neighbor’s wines – made with the same grapes, in view of Astrid’s own vines, are more puckery and filled with tannin.

Terroir combined with cultivation techniques and the very soul of he or she who cultivates, is what makes the thousands of wines in France so distinct; the garlic from Lautrec hotter than that from Nimes; the apples of Normandy more nuanced and distinct than those from the Loire. Terroir makes my own cherry tomatoes sweeter than my neighbors, and the peaches in a friends’ nearby garden better than those from a tree in Alsace.

In the end, terroir is a term that is really a notion, a complex combination of atmospheric, intellectual, practical and spiritual influences that create the incredible wealth of qualities in what we eat.

 

Potatoes with bay leaves

Potatoes with bay leaves

BAKED POTATOES AND BAY LEAVES

POMMES DE TERRE AUX FEUILLES DE LAURIER

 

These were tested with potatoes from the Norman terroir, in fields belonging to Baptiste Bourdon!  The bay leaves lend their gentle aroma to the potatoes, for a wonderful side dish. These must be served directly from the oven, as they lose their fresh crispness if left to sit. You may cook these slightly longer than indicated with no adverse results.

 

8 medium potatoes (3 pounds;1„1/2 kg total), scrubbed clean

Fine sea salt

8 fresh bay leaves (Laurel nobilis), or dried imported bay leaves

1 tablespoon extra„virgin olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

 

1.  Preheat the oven to 450 ° F (200C).

2.  Cut a potato in half lengthwise, stopping just before you separate the halves so the potato stays intact. Gently open the potato and sprinkle the salt on each half, as well as possible. Slip a bay leaf into the cut, press the halves back together, and place the potato in a medium-size baking dish, or one that will easily hold the potatoes in one layer. Repeat with the remaining potatoes.

3.  Drizzle the potatoes with the olive oil then roll them so they are covered with oil. Season them with a bit more salt, and generously with pepper. Bake in the center of the oven until they are puffed and tender through, about 1 hour. To test for doneness, pierce them through with a skewer or a sharp knife. Remove from the oven and serve immediately, with a mention to guests not to eat the bay leaves.

8 servings

 

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20 Responses to Terroir

  1. margaret21 says:

    A lovely explanation of ‘terroir’, which we came to appreciate more deeply the longer we lived in France. Once understood, there’s no going back to homogenous fare produced who-knows-where. As to potatoes, the best we’ve ever eaten came from Denmark, picked up from a farm gate. Until then, I’d never known spuds could be so tasty, so waxy, so ‘just right’ for eating just plain, with a little butter

  2. Interesting read on a subject very dear to me. It also is one of the primary reasons I want to move to France with my wife and four year old son Beaumont and live your life, or at least my version of it. My mother came to the USA in the late 1950’s. Her father was a successful business man in Marseilles and owned an auberge (auberge de l’etang bleu) in Perigord where i visited every summer growing up. He had a huge garden that kept the house full of seasonal vegetables and that’s what we ate. I grew up with that sensibility which was in stark contrast to my American friends diet. Their diet never changes… no seasonality to it. They ate the same things in February as they ate in July. I take my son to the Portland farmer’s market every Saturday to shop for the week. We eat what is available whether it is lamb cheeks, flowering kale, beautiful tender young arugula, fresh mache or whatever wild mushrooms are being foraged. That is what is on our table. It’s gotten to the point that I do not understand people who shop at the local grocery giant and walk in with a predetermined list of things to buy. Sorry basil in the Spring is no match for the flavor and aroma of basil in the Summer so thank you but I will wait. Which leads me to side grip number two, the layout of the grocery store. How is it possible that produce is the first section you go to and the proteins are lined up in the middle towards the back of the store. How can you possibly know what produce you need without seeing the fish or meat first? Modern winemaking has also stepped away from terroir making non-descript wines that do not speak of the land they came from. An Oregon pinot should taste like Oregon; an Anderson valley pinot should taste like the AV and a Clos Vougeot should taste like itself. When I drink a glass I want to remember the smell of the earth at the vineyard or the smell of the rocks that reflect the sunlight to even ripening on low hung vines but Instead science has stepped in and we get non descript fruit bombs that are high in alcohol and very one dimensional. I remember sitting with the owner of Chateau Gazin decades ago. He said to me, the problem in the USA is that every year you guys have a new varietal that is popular so you regraft everything and grew that. He continued, in France we understand that the hillside facing a certain direction can only grow this clone or that varietal and that is that. A concept we lost terribly. For us it is first about business than about the art behind it. So thank you for posting this and doing your part to return us to a civilized time where things happened in season! A Bientot! “Even as an old peasant woman recognizes her god in a painted image, in a childish medal, in a chaplet, so life would speak to us in it’s humblest language in order we understand. The joy of living, I say, was summed up for me in the remembered sensation of that burning and aromatic swallow, that mixture of milk and coffee and bread by which men hold communion with tranquil pastures, exotic plantations, and golden harvests, communion with earth.” ~ Antoine de Saint Exupery

    • Susan says:

      Francois, Thank you for this, Many gripes, but we are on a learning curve in the U.S., eager to be the best always, and we simply don’t have the solid knowledge of history and tradition. It will come, I’m sure!

      And thank you for the beautiful quote, which I will share! a bientot.

  3. Cathy Bennett says:

    I know Susan, this is why I find myself liking the, for instance,the subtle nuances of the beans I get from Rancho Gordo, tomatoes grown locally, etc. etc……Funny, you are right about how most of the eating/cooking world is unaware of these differences…….Thanks for making me think about that today…… Food for thought!

    • Susan says:

      Well, I think so but am never sure. I don’t want to talk down to anyone, but terms can be used without being understood, and sometimes concepts are so important that a simple discussion helps understand them.

    • Susan says:

      Cathy, you’ve got it. You are most welcome!

  4. Becky says:

    What size would these potatoes be as we are not familiar with the variety in the States. Sounds lovely!

  5. Becky says:

    I would love to pin this recipe for later use – but there is not picture associated with it. Can you post a pic in the future please? Thanks!

  6. Barbara Wetzel says:

    Thank you for the beautiful explanation for terroir. I have heard it used at the vineyards in Oregon but now see that it is meant for all that we eat.

  7. I think I will never stop learning interesting things from you. Thanks for taking the time to explain different concepts, topics & terms, and caring enough to expand our minds through your blog and classes. Job well done.

  8. Karen Kaplan says:

    Perhaps the most beautifully written and most accurate description of terroir that I have ever read–and I have read quite a few. I will save this inevgirvfuture reference

  9. Guy says:

    Am not lucky… Whenever i leave a reply looks as if it doesnt get through…

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