I distinctly remember the look I got from the cab driver as I told him I had flown half way around the world to eat something I could have easily gotten at home. His face gave away his utter shock. “Is this guy insane? Maybe he just doesn’t have anything better to do with his time or money” almost certainly went through his mind. If not for terroir, he’d be entirely correct in his assumptions.
Terroir is the concept of environment affecting the food that is grown in an area. Soil conditions, microclimates, the vegetation in the area can all have a significant impact on the textures, taste, and quality of foods. Even varying one of the factors by a small amount can sometimes create great changes in what we perceive as the final product.
Wine is a prime example of how terroir can affect the outcome of a product. The use of irrigation can controls the intensity of the grape, sometimes producing thick jam-y flavours like seen in southern Australian varietals. A few dozen hours of sunlight can determine if a wine can be sold as a Grand cru or not. Old vines versus new vines can determine the brightness and complexity of flavours. Even moving a few hundred miles down the coastline of California can change the characteristics of the fruit.
Plants aren’t the only thing affected by terroir. Animals and other wildlife are affected as well. In Alberta we are adamant that Alberta beef is the best. We are used to grain or grass fed beef that roams the plains, producing a clean meaty flavour with mild marbling. If you’ve had American beef that has been corn fed, you might have noticed a difference in the intensity and flavouring of the meat. This difference
extends to beef produced in Australia or Japan. The diets and surroundings of the animal have an effect on the final product.
The list of things go on: east cost vs. west coast oysters, wild sockeye vs. farmed salmon, foie vs. duck liver. Terroir affects everything. When we shop or travel we should be aware that eating local products is an expression about the entire local ecosystem. The flip side is things will drastically show when something in the environment goes amiss, the most extreme of which is European wine produced in the years of 1986-1988, right after the Chernobyl disaster.
When I travel I don’t always look to indigenous specialities or exotic ingredients. Even worldwide
favourites, such as pizza done with local ingredients and styles can product eye opening experiences and tell a story about the environment I am in.
Gabriel Hall is a business and technology strategist, a freelance writer, a world traveler, a seeker of gastronomic experiences, and a lover of all things hedonistic. His site, Le Voyage Gourmand and twitter @voyagegourmand is a catalogue of his global experiences and thoughts.