The Taste of Place

american terroirannals

Rowan Jacobsen begins his lastest book, American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, with a series of questions: Why does honey from the tupelo-lined banks of the Apalachicola River have a kick of cinnamon unlike any other? Why is salmon from Alaska’s Yukon River among the world’s best? Why does one underground cave in Vermont produce many of the country’s most intense cheeses?

The answer, says Rowan Jacobsen, is Terroir, the taste of place. Originally used by the French to describe the way local conditions such as soil and climate affect the flavor of wine, the concept of terroir has become a useful tool in understanding the unique offerings of regional foods across the country.

Rowan Jacobsen writes, “If you grew up or spent time in the country, your family may have loved to get sweet corn from a particular farm stand. There may have been lots of farm stands in the area, but Farmer Brown’s corn always tasted better. There was something about Farmer Brown’s land — the soil, the water, the microclimate. He had the best spot, and he had the best corn.
That’s terroir. And it’s that simple.

American Terroir is a rich and perceptive tour of the local foods of North America — from mushroom-hunting in Quebec and potato picking on Prince Edward Island, to the varietal honeys of Florida and the deep dark chocolate of Chiapas, Mexico.

So why is John McPhee’s classic geology book, Annals of the Former World, matched with American Terroir above? Well, it somehow makes sense to Rowan Jacobsen, and to us:

Terroir almost invariably finds its roots in bedrock, in the workings of tectonic plates and glaciers, along with the realities of climate and geography. For this reason, my favorite work on terroir is not from the bottomless vat of wine writing. Rather it is John McPhee’s magnum opus Annals of the Former World. In that work, McPhee traverses the continent, showing how the patterns of life of its inhabitants, human and otherwise, were set long ago by the deep movement of the earth.

And here’s three related titles from the Land Library’s shelves:

terroir wilsontrubekgeology & plant life
Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines by James Wilson, The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir by Amy B. Trubek, Geology and Plant Life: The Effects of Landforms and Rock Types on Plants by Arthur R. Kruckeberg.

Rowan Jacobsen referred above to the bottomless vat of wine writing. Over the years, as tempted as we have been, the Land Library has never been able to plumb those depths too deeply. But whenever the notion of terroir arises — land, soil, climate, the taste of place — we dive deep. Here’s three of our favorite volumes from the Land Library’s secret vat:

at homewinemaker's dancerussian river
At Home in the Vineyard: Cultivating a Winery, an Industry, and a Life by Susan Soko Blosser, The Winemaker’s Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley by Jonathan Swinchatt & David Howell, A Wine Journey Along the Russian River by Steve Heimhoff.

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