Wine lovers, connoisseurs and sommeliers may be familiar with the term, but for many of us, it may be the first time even hearing it.
The word terroir comes from the Latin word ‘territorium’, meaning territory, but the word goes far beyond that in the world of viniculture, gastronomy and more importantly, the French culture. In today’s post, we attempt to understand the concept of terroir and find out why it is so important to the French people.
What is Terroir?
In France, food and beverages made in different regions are believed to have distinct tastes. Every food-producing region offers products that are the result of a specific type of soil with unique characteristics; the topography of a place, the distinct climate and the air quality. The combination of these factors along with ancestral knowledge of the producers forms a product that is unique in taste, flavour, texture and purpose. This makes it nearly impossible to achieve the same quality of the product anywhere outside the region.
For example, the nature of the soil influences the flavour of a food product. For example, the best qualities of Chenin blanc are highlighted when grown and produced in the Loire Valley, but the same grape, grown and used to make wine in another region would change its flavour and overall characteristics completely. Therefore, terroir doesn’t just influence flavour, it determines the overall personality of the wine. The type of soil is in fact a crucial element in the concept of the terroir. To better understand why, imagine there is a slope, now on that slope, characteristics of the bottom part of the slope will differ from the more elevated parts. Hence, the terroir will also be different. So, the terroir doesn’t just change from one region to the other, it can change even within the same field.
Another example is that of cheese. Cheese is made using the milk of usually either cows, sheep or goat. Naturally, the breed of animal and their diet will determine the quality of the milk. The quality, yield, texture, density, fat content, the viscosity of the milk will be determined by the diet and lifestyle of the cow. Which would depend on the climate and the terrain influencing the pasture. It would also depend on the way it is raised. That, along with the way the milk is extracted and the way the cheese is made, would depend on the knowledge acquired by the herder and cheesemaker which, would altogether influence the quality, taste and flavour of the cheese.
Thus, the cheese is produced in a particular terroir.
This combination of unique soil, climate and traditional knowledge having direct influence over the outcome of a product, makes up the intangible concept of terroir. The concept is typically French with no direct English translation.
The factors are so unique, that the products from all food-producing regions stand out, differentiating themselves. Offering something specific only to the region the product was made in. These products are called les produits du terroir, or the products of terroir and they’re usually important components of regional cuisines. The terroir thus becomes the indicator of authenticity, a guarantor of quality and the thing that highlights the capabilities and hallmark characteristics of a specific location.
One may encounter the word while purchasing a bottle of wine or, at a wine tasting, as terroir is one of the most important factors assessed to predict the qualities of a wine. In France, however, the concept doesn’t solely apply to wine but also to any agricultural product standing out from the various food-producing regions. Some of the most common terroir products are, butter, honey, seafood, cured meats, cheese, preserves and wine, among others.
Significance of the Terroir
The terroir demonstrates the relationship between the people and the land. It shows how the inhabitants decide to use and show respect to what is available to them. Terroir products are to be made in a manner that respects the natural resources and utilizes them to their fullest, ensuring minimal or no wastage. This makes the element of traditional savoir-faire passed down from generations, equally important. They developed methods that turned raw ingredients into finished products with limited resources to make sure they made the most of the land.
The methods evolved along with the changes of nature. An example of traditional knowledge would be knowing the right time to harvest crops, or the best way to package, let’s say, butter, ensuring easy storage, maximum shelf life and optimum flavour.
This need to respect the land and its resources also explains why the terroir products are usually agricultural and maricultural products. The land and sea provide people with what they need and, in turn, people apply the concept of terroir to indeed utilize resources in the best way possible.
The terroir cannot be measured, seen or felt physically, but it can be experienced by living life in food-producing regions, through storytelling and, most importantly, taste. The essence and heritage of the land can literally be felt through taste.
Why is Terroir so important to the French?
Products of terroir are made in the most traditional way possible, celebrating local craftsmanship and traditional knowledge. True products of terroir are made by hand or with the use of basic tools. Even if machines are used, they’re only for speeding up menial tasks, they’re not used with the aim of producing uniform products. It is important to note that these products are the opposite of mass-produced commercial products.
The product in question is normally a result of the culinary knowledge acquired by the oldest member of the family. It could be an ancestral recipe that was once created out of necessity, using ingredients available in the surroundings.
The sense of necessity may no longer be there, but because it was part of the lifestyle of one of the forefathers, the knowledge is still transmitted to the younger generations. Learning the savoir-faire of the product, therefore, becomes a family tradition.
People either spend their childhood in the countryside, learning how to make these products. Or, if they live in urban areas, they spend their vacations visiting family, possibly a grandparent who teaches them how to make the products.
When they grow up and drift apart, perhaps visiting the countryside less often, keeping the products close to them keeps them connected to their roots. The products are close to their hearts, their emotions, serving as a symbol of love, family and togetherness. These sentiments evoke nostalgia, bringing back memories from the countryside.
The seasonal produce that makes every sliver of cheese, or each sip of wine or a spoonful of jam, carries the signature flavours of home and of good memories, providing that warm fuzzy feeling in time of need.
Protection of Regional Identity
As terroirs are a tradition unique to a region, they are protected so that the art of production remains unique to that region and continues the heritage. This protection is granted through denomination of origin, geographical indications, appellations, etc.
In France, the AOC or Appellation d’origine Contrôlée is an appellation system certifying the type, quality and geographical origin of products such as wines, cheeses and other products of terroir, provided that the product and its terroir meet a certain set of standards and regulations. Only if the standards are met, can the product be labelled as an AOC product. This system acts as a guarantor for quality and ensures that the product is indeed from a specific region. In fact, it was created to protect regional identity and traditions.
Examples of French Products of Terroir
Camembert Cheese from Normandy
Camembert is a soft cheese from Camembert, Normandy, northwestern France. It was said to be created in 1791 in this region by a farmer by the name Marie Harel. However, some sources say that it was actually created in the year 1100 but only popularized by Marie in the 18th century, after she was given some tips on cheesemaking by a priest from Brie.
The terroir of the Camembert area is what makes this cheese truly unique. The mild maritime climate produced a nutritious pasture that the local cows graze on. The cows can be identified by their spots in the colours of white, brown and black and, by their beady glassy eyes. The cows graze out in the open, feeding on pasture only found here, day and night, for nine months. With all these factors combined, the cows produce superior quality milk for the cheese. Sometimes, when the quality and quantity of the pasture changes due to natural factors, it brings changes to the diet of the cows which influences the taste, quality, yield and fat content of the milk.
Once the milk is extracted, the cheesemakers then use their traditional knowledge to make the cheese. An AOC Camembert cheese must be made in Camembert; the milk used to make the cheese must be unpasteurized, remain raw; it must weigh 250g, must be at least 10cm in diameter, and it must have 22% fat, which is just some of the criteria needed to meet the quality standards. It is the cheesemakers’ job to ensure that these standards are met. For example, they must skim some of the fat from the milk extracted from the cow to achieve the 22% fat content. Maintaining that percentage is important because a higher fat content would result in the cheese being more liquid in nature.
Each season produces Camembert differing in flavour and that’s what makes it so unique. Today, Camembert has become the symbol of Normandy.
Buckwheat Galettes from Brittany
Galettes de sarrasin are a savoury pancake that was created in Brittany, western France. While crêpes are a dessert pancake, galettes are consumed as part of the main course. Galette de sarrasin is a thin but large circular pancake made with a thin batter with buckwheat flour, eggs, water, seasoned with a bit of salt and cooked in butter. Once cooked, they’re topped with an egg and cured meat or vegetables and paired with Breton cider.
What makes the dish a product of terroir is the buckwheat flour and the recipe, of course. Buckwheat grows in abundance in Brittany. The wet climate, the light and acidic soil and the carefully selected seeds produce the best buckwheat plants in the country since the 13th century. Today it has a protected geographic indication label.
Once harvested, the buckwheat is ground into flour and packaged in paper ready to be distributed to the local crêperies to be made into galettes. The crêperies use a local recipe that seemingly goes back to the 16th century or perhaps even earlier. The thin batter mix is cooked with butter in a large circular non-stick crêpe pan, where the batter is spread with a wooden crêpe spreader.
A characteristic that differentiates handmade terroir galettes from commercial ones is their strength and malleability. The commercial galette, when scrunched with the hand, crumbles while the handmade galette stays intact.
Wines from Bordeaux are accredited internationally for their quality, flavours, texture and balanced flavours and it is all thanks to their terroirs.
Bordeaux maintains a Mediterranean maritime climate, meaning it experiences warm summers and cold winters. However, its average temperature remains 13 degrees Celsius throughout the year. Additionally, it experiences ample rainfall and sunlight, creating the optimum environment for the grapes to thrive in. The climate may be common in the region but the soil isn’t so, it creates several terroirs. However, there are only two distinct types.
On the left bank, the soil tends to have more gravel and sand, which has the minerals and environment to produce beautiful plump Cabernet Sauvignon, the more prominent grape type. On the right bank of the river, the soil has more clay, sand and limestone, which traps moisture and heat. It also has an elevation, even providing sufficient drainage. This creates the perfect atmosphere to create the dominant grape type in this area, the Merlot.
What is most unique about Bordeaux wines is that they are always a blend of at least two to three grapes. Currently, there are 57 Bordeaux wine appellations.
Click here to read about the winemaking process.
Rosette Sausages from Lyon
Lyon is the capital of gastronomy internationally and it is especially famous for its sausages. One of them is the Rosette Sausage. It is a type of handmade dry sausage made from chopped pork shoulders and pork fat from the buttocks. The sausage is said to have originated in Beaujolais, a town just 40km away from Lyon.
The meat and fat are chopped, then gently blended together along with spices such as salt, sugar, black pepper and garlic. Then, the mixture is stuffed in a pork casing, after which, the cylinders are threaded by hand.
They are then kept in a warm but dry area for three days, during which the moisture seeps out, drying the meat. Then, they are dried in the pure but dry mountain air, in the middle of woods in the Rhône valley for around 2 months. Here the temperature is relatively constant, maintaining 12 degrees Celsius. Once cured, a layer of white fungus grows outside, indicating that the sausage is ready and full of sweet, savoury and strong umami flavours.
Threats to the Terroir
The first and the most obvious threat to the terroirs and their products is climate change. The rise in global temperatures threatens the quality and delicateness of terroir products. It affects the harvest time and overall qualities of the crops such as grapes, in turn altering the flavour profile and standard of the wines.
The second threat is commercialization. For the sake of profit, many of the traditional methods are disappearing as the producers move on to producing standardized products, using complex machines and mass-producing the products with out-of-season ingredients, for big agro-food companies. This way, the big companies are using terms like terroir in their products, for marketing purposes. Falsely communicating authenticity and trust while actually providing consumers with inferior quality products. This not only threatens centuries worth of traditional knowledge but also, makes it difficult for consumers to trust terroir products overall.
Additionally, as these giant companies are hogging up the market share with these ‘terroir products’, smaller producers determined to safeguard tradition aren’t getting the opportunity they deserve to showcase their products.
Lastly, many have begun doubting the credibility of the appellation systems as there are allegations that their standard may be becoming more lenient in their assessment.
In summary, we learnt that terroir doesn’t just refer to the soil or terrain that an agricultural product grows in, but also the climate and traditional knowledge needed to transform raw ingredients into finished products.
We also discovered how creations of necessity, over time, turned into a tradition passed over to generations, acting as a tool to connect the French people to their roots. We looked at some typically French terroir products and finally, discussed some of the threats that terroirs and products face.
Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments below. Click here for more articles like this.