Can a place really have a taste? Of course it can, it’s all about the balance between the human and non-human and appreciating the big picture says sommelière, gastronome and food writer Ursula Heinzelmann.
Terroir is a term seemingly embraced by all who love food. Originally French, it is most often translated as “the taste of a place”. But can a place really have a taste? In France, the answer has long been in the affirmative. As early as 1600, the soil scientist Olivier de Serres stated in his renowned textbook, Théâtre d’agriculture et ménage des champs, that the fundamental task of agriculture was to understand the nature of the terroir, a concept that gradually widened to include the culinary context of today: the idea that traditions and savoir-faire, as well as landscape, climate, and soil, shape foodstuffs and make them unique.
France is a country well suited to explore this culinary philosophy. It was there, in the early nineteenth century, that the first-ever culinary map was printed, adorned with wine barrels and bottles, cattle and fish, cheeses and beehives, all lovingly drawn as rather cute, small ideograms. It was a fundamentally new way of mapping the French territory that took into account the strong sense of identity in the French provinces, each of which had its own specialities, traditions, and idioms. By the late nineteenth century, provincial cuisines, on the basis of local agriculture, using crops or livestock suited to the climate and geography, were seen as regional, with Paris as a showcase where they all came together with the best they had to offer. This went hand in hand with a strong and proud desire to preserve those origins and their particularities, to guarantee authenticity and protect against counterfeits, through various labels such as the appellation d’origine contrôlée. This was the promise of terroir as places that can be tasted.
Today, terroir is most commonly associated with wine, and wine is indeed a good starting point to understand it better. Fermented grape juice has long been associated with its origin and has been shipped elsewhere on the strength of it. A wine lover in Paris, Berlin, or Tokyo can detect the distinctive flavours of a Beaujolais or a Burgundy; they taste different because they spring from different landscapes. Burgundy’s limestone soils make for a different aroma and texture than the granite soils of the Beaujolais region further south.
For a long time, a terroir’s defining features were determined by nature. Humans had no alternative but to respect nature’s givens if they were to survive within them. They had to observe weather patterns closely, figure out which plants and animals were thriving, and collaborate with those species, varieties, and breeds. In the case of wine, that is how certain grape varieties came to stand for certain regions, such as Pinot Noir for red Burgundy and Gamay for Beaujolais.
Obviously, market forces were at play as well, but they did not rule the game. Grape varieties were more or less chosen by the places themselves, as humans noticed better and better results over time, or any results at all. Going against the place, against nature’s forces, whims, and will, would have meant no grapes, which would have meant no livelihood, as many of the most traditional wine regions developed because their landscapes did not allow for many other crops. Think of those steep slopes and stony, shallow soils; vines have enabled humans to make a living there.
The same was true for milk and cheese. Rough mountain terrains where not much agriculture was possible, be they northern and chilly, or arid and hot around the Mediterranean, again meant humans had to pay careful attention, in order to work with animals that had adapted to those conditions and those places. And it really does take a different breed of sheep to thrive on the arid plateau of La Mancha than in the Scottish Highlands.
In fact, the same is true for everything on our plates, and it does not stop with species or breeds. The list of what informs terroir is almost endless: the exact moment you choose to seed or plant or go to pasture; how you till the soil or don’t; how and when you prune your trees or move your animals, and how many of them you choose to grow or keep; if you irrigate often, only a little, or not at all; if you feed in addition to what is provided by the landscape; and if you intervene by protecting a certain species from another, be it animal “pest” or plant “weed”; how you do all that until finally, you decide to harvest whatever the place is willing to give you.
What follows is all the processing required in order to fill your cellar and larder, and possibly those of others. Cooler temperatures during harvest season will make for fruit and vegetables that keep longer and make fermentations and ripening happen more slowly, with respective variations in the resulting product. Humidity levels will affect which kinds of microbes will be present to assist you in those processes that ultimately yield what we know as wine, cheese, preserves, and all the other foodstuffs that allow us to survive leaner times of the year and trade with other people in other places for their respective crops and products.
Even then, it does not stop, working with those foodstuffs in the kitchen, preparing and combining them day after day to feed bodies and souls, using what the place provides. Is there enough fuel to simmer food for hours on end or not? Is the air dry enough to hang meat, or do you need the help of smoke? Is there salt for pickling, or do you need to find other ways? Do you add herbs that grow nearby or barter for spices if you happen to live on one of the ancient trade routes? This is how the dishes we call “traditional” came into being. They are the cooking or cuisine of a place.
In an ideal world then, terroir is captured in the stories we tell about the food we eat, and the wine we drink. But terroir is a sensitive and delicate thing. All too easily, the concept can get watered down, leaving behind little more than a ghost of a story. These are gastronomic narratives we are all too familiar with, they are the fantasies modern PR thrives upon, yet we can’t taste the places they describe any longer. What happened?
To fully unfold, flourish, and express itself, terroir needs space, and that space relies on a very precarious balance between everyone and everything involved. Every single factor informs the rest, simultaneously reacting to its surroundings and actively shaping them. It takes just one to become rampant or withdrawn, and the rest will suffer. Terroir needs balance, and it needs a balance within nature—humankind included. And yet, again and again, human ingenuity has forced its mark on everything else; culture has forgotten it’s based on nature, and making progress has meant disparaging tradition. To truly manifest itself, a terroir needs mutual respect.
Industrialisation and technology have, in many ways, damaged humans’ ability to react to places, replacing symbiotic arrangement with the hubris of apparent domination, resulting in the mistaken belief that you are able to make wine, grow fruit, or keep dairy cows wherever and whenever you want, which of course is an illusion. Terroir needs a different approach. Irrigating and fertilizing excessively, be it in vineyards, fields, or pastures, might result in a larger crop for a while, but that crop will have lost its unique character. It will be interchangeable with that of any number of other places—never mind what it does to the place in the long run—and to humankind.
Terroir does not suffer well humankind’s desire to be in the lead role. Terroir instead calls for collaboration, with a long perspective and a feeling for the big picture. It wants us to proceed slowly, and to respect what we might not even grasp.
The wise American poet, philosopher, and farmer from Kentucky, Wendell Berry, has repeatedly called out modern science’s disdain for mystery, and its tendency to reduce life to what is known about it. Places might appear to be static and firmly set in their features and characteristics, but the way that translates onto our plates constantly changes—which of course is also the weakness of those (man-made) labels such as appellations. It is not just since the start of our current period of global warming that weather patterns have been changing, affecting things such as flora, fauna, and people’s need to adapt. Evolving economies and social structures have different influences on all levels as well, from access to new species to additions to both pantries and methods.
For all and everything to thrive going forward, we need to listen to the land in its entirety, respect all other beings, respect the terrain, the soil and the seasons, and humbly find our own place in it. In order for a place to have a taste, we must first and foremost allow that place to be. We need to cultivate landscapes that reflect all the other factors at work, which form a kind of balanced mosaic where mixed forests alternate with fields, and grasslands are bordered by streams and ponds. In spite of all the urbanization and modernization, we need to remember and again get close to the sound of bumblebees and the wind in the trees, the smell of soil teeming with life, and the beauty of butterflies on wildflowers and hedges.
We need to take notice of leaves gradually changing colour in autumn, birds hiding when a storm approaches, and the sweet smell of the air after a storm has passed. It’s only then that the food on our plate, the wine in our glass will tell the story of its origin—and that we’ll be able to hear it.
Ursula Heinzelmann is an independent scholar and food historian born, bred, and based in Berlin, Germany. A trained chef, sommelière, and ex-restaurateur, she works as a freelance wine and food writer, specializing in cheese. She has published a number of cookbooks, a food history of Germany, Beyond Bratwurst, as well as several books on cheese, and acted as area editor for the Oxford Companion to Cheese. She is also the trustee director of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and curator of the Cheese Berlin festival.
This essay was first published in 2022 in the book Taste and Place, conceived and edited by The Common Table founders studio_lovell for Design Hotels. A food book with a difference, Taste and Place: The Design Hotels Book looks at ecosystems of hospitality through the lens of food to better understand the bigger system changes possible and necessary in order to transition to a low-carbon future. Text and images reproduced by kind permission.