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The Wine News
“A collection of eclectic information that satisfies, at least temporarily, the most inquisitive and academic of gourmands.”
"This volume introduces a new and powerful idea into the quickly expanding American literature of food. Amy Trubek is better qualified than anyone I know to offer an American take on terroir—her background as an anthropologist, a chef, an orchardist, and an activist in the local food movement let her understand the idea of taste in all its diverse and wonderful dimensions, and her skill as a writer lets her communicate with great grace what she's figured out!"—Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
"Anyone concerned with the future of food in America should read this acutely perceptive, engagingly written, and, above all, compelling inquiry into the relationship between the taste of food and where it comes from. It is a delight, as well as a revelation, to travel with Amy Trubek as she criss-crosses America and the French countryside, talking to growers, distributors, vintners, chefs, farmers, scientists, and activists—to the women and men committed to making taste connections matter. Perhaps best of all, The Taste of Place invites us to undertake our own taste adventures, both far and near."—Priscilla Ferguson, author of Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine
A REMARKABLE CONSISTENCY EXISTS IN DISCUSSIONS OF TERROIR AND GOÛT du terroir in France, a cultural sensibility that extends back over several centuries. In historical documents, government treatises, and contemporary conversation, everyone-be they journalists, farmers, vintners, bureaucrats, chefs, or citizens-does not adopt a point of view. Instead they consider terroir and goût du terroir to reflect reality. This fundamentalist mode always begins with a defined place, tracing the taste of place back from the mouth to the plants and animals and ultimately into the soil, creating a very Gallic twist on the oft-used American phrase "location, location, location." In France, food and drink from a certain place are thought to possess unique tastes. Thus, more than words, terroir and goût du terroir are categories that frame perceptions and practices-a worldview, or should we say a foodview? The agrarian roots of terroir best explain the origins and persistence of this foodview. Terroir and goût du terroir are categories for framing and explaining people's relationship to the land, be it sensual, practical, or habitual. This connection is considered essential, as timeless as the earth itself.
Agriculturalist Olivier de Serres says in his seventeenth-century treatise Le theâtre d'agriculture et des mesnage des champs that "the fundamental task in agriculture is to understand the nature of the terroir, whether it is the land of your ancestors or land recently acquired." Soil and roots are at the heart of French cuisine as well. In his discourse, places make unique tastes, and in turn such flavor characteristics and combinations give those places gastronomic renown. Le Grand d'Aussy, in his 1789 work Histoire de la vie privée des français, discusses French cuisine as the natural fruition of provincial agriculture, tracing back at least two centuries the connection between the cuisine and what "nature has seen fit to allow each of our provinces to produce." Le cours gastronomique, first published in 1808, includes a map of France that outlines the nation's borders and then charts the inner territory solely with agricultural products. Included are the wines of regions such as Bordeaux and the Rhone; Roquefort and Brie are named, with drawings of cheeses; and many charcuterie items such as sausages and cured hams are shown as well. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's La physiologie du goût (The physiology of taste), first published in 1826, is a catholic exploration of the physiology and culture of taste, replete with scientific, literary, political, and economic commentaries celebrating taste. He characterizes the ability to discern the natural origins of tastes as a "point of perfection": "[The] gourmands of Rome distinguished, by taste alone, the fish caught between the bridges from that which had been caught lower down.... And have we not plenty of gourmands who are able to indicate the latitude under which a wine has ripened, as certainly as a pupil of Biot or Arago can foretell an eclipse?" (emphasis mine). During the same period, Madame Adanson, in her influential and widely distributed book La cuisinière de la campagne et de la ville, lists cheeses by place name-Neuchâtel, Brie, Marolles, Cantal-and specifies the flavor characteristics and methods of proper storage of each. The flavor of the fromage des Vosges, Adanson writes, "is unique among all cheeses; the method of fabrication is a secret of the locality." In these analyses, the physical environment (soil, weather, topography), not the tiller of the soil, the shepherd, or the vintner, is the primary source of the distinctive tastes of French wine and cheese.
CREATING THEIR OWN DESTINY
A closer examination of historical events tells a different story. The natural environment influences the flavors of food and beverages, but ultimately the cultural domain, the foodview, creates the goût du terroir. The taste of place does not originate with the Mesozoic-era collision of the African and European continental plates that defined France's geography and geology. Rather, beginning in the early twentieth century a group of people began to organize around this naturalized interpretation of taste, for they saw the potential benefits of a foodview celebrating an agrarian and rural way of life. French tastemakers-journalists, cookbook writers, chefs-and taste producers-cheese makers, winemakers, bakers, cooks-effectively shaped how people tasted wine and food. The French terms used to describe those dedicated to food are gastronomes, tastemakers, and les artisans des métiers de bouche, taste producers; both are highly specific terms that more fully evoke the attention the French pay to food and drink than can be captured in an English translation. These advocates intervened into an everyday occurrence, eating and drinking, and guided the French toward a certain relationship between place and taste.
These tastemakers and taste producers worked hard to shape French judgments of the morsels and liquids that they put in their mouths. These artisans, critics, and commentators elaborated a new language of taste. This language was never purely aesthetic, however, but instead these new translations of taste were part of a dialogue with nature, in this case the agrarian countryside of France. And this was not merely a fanciful dialogue, the sort of raucous food talk that can happen at dinner parties and local cafés and then is all but forgotten the next morning. Nor was this new language merely another version of the utopian food visions characterized by the legend of the medieval Land of Cockaigne, where "cooked food-patés, meat pies, cakes, white bread-grows on trees." This grammar and syntax was built one ingredient at a time, from the ground to the table.
These men and women observed their world and decided to champion certain practices (small farms, regional dishes) and values (tradition, local taste) in order to make sure that they did not disappear. Their cultural and economic investments made the French word for soil signify so much: a sensibility, a mode of discernment, a philosophy of practice, and an analytic category. What they said may have embraced the timeless and essential notion of mother Earth, but what they did was to create a vision of agrarian rural France and convincingly put it in people's mouths. These tastemakers and taste producers cared about taste and place and did not want traditional ways of growing, eating, and drinking to be lost. They made arguments linking place, taste, types of agriculture, and quality that helped protect certain forms of agricultural production and enabled France's modern regional cuisines. These discussions helped shape taste perceptions beyond France as well, for their claims about the taste of place have been adopted throughout the world. The question thus is how did a definition of terroir extending beyond an instrumental explanation of the soil to a more complex category emerge?
Terroir has been used to explain agriculture for centuries, but its association with taste, place, and quality is more recent, a reaction to changing markets, the changing organization of farming, and changing politics. By the late nineteenth century, everyday rural agricultural practices-a reliance on certain crops or livestock because they responded to the local climate and geography, harvesting the bounty of nearby rivers and seas-came to represent the building blocks of regional cuisines. A new connection emerged between how the French farmed, lived, and supped. Some historians examining the emergence of a unified interest in championing the relevance of terroir to French food and farming see geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache, who lived from 1845 to 1909, as a seminal figure. He published his best-known work, Tableau de la géographie de France, in 1903, and it has been in print ever since. Geography was in its infancy at the time, and the main influences on the field were ecology, evolution, and nationalism. Trained in history and literature, Vidal de la Blache spent most of his career involved in the field of geography, and at the end of his career he obtained a position as professor of geography at the University of Paris. Perhaps because of his initial training in history, he was interested in the human and social dimensions of geography, and he became deeply involved in developing a regional geography. In doing so, he sought to understand the interaction between humans and their environment, emphasizing the genre de vie, or cultural dimensions.
In his introduction, Vidal de la Blache states, "What one hopes to explain in these pages concerns how can the history of a people be (or must be) incorporated in the soil of France? The rapport between the soil and the people is imprinted with an ancient character that continues through today." This essentialist argument, so powerful in early anthropology, geography, and other disciplines, can be interpreted negatively for its nationalistic and racist underpinnings that helped to justify oppressive and regressive policies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the case of food and drink, however, this book, with its focus on the specific and unique geographical conditions of different regions of France, served a different purpose by becoming an important cornerstone of attempts to affirm regionally based agriculture and cuisine.
Underlying Vidal de la Blache's analysis is the assumption that "environment determines the way of life [genre de vie], that is, the enduring features of existence in any particular locality." His book examines the geography of France region by region, focusing on the underlying geologic structures but also celebrating differences in regional character, including food and drink, along the way. Jean-Yves Guiomar sees Vidal de la Blache as a naturalist and romantic: "For Vidal, the characteristics of a way of life include the manner in which people situated themselves in a particular location, the type of dwelling they chose, and the design of their homes, all interpreted as a direct reflection of the nature of the soil." He created a timeless and essentialist portrait of the relationship of people to the land, affirming the already powerful cultural belief in the importance of the pays and paysans by focusing on the impact of geology (biological and physical) on regional economic and cultural life. Vidal de la Blache was also supported by the French state to create good maps of all the regions of France. This project, sponsored by the Minister of Public Education, Jules Simon, resulted in the Cartes Murales, larger maps of France and its regions that were distributed to schools throughout France.
Vidal de la Blache's scientific treatise did not directly address the economies of the regions. However, taste producers and tastemakers of the same period translated his geographic analyses into daily practices. The agrarian activism of the vignerons of Champagne, the AOC regulations and the regional movements of the early twentieth century, and the atlases and guides of Curnonsky were all influenced by his work. They used the timelessness of Vidal de la Blache's genre de vie and made it central to their argument for protection and preservation. Exploring their efforts explains the emergence of goût du terroir as a French cultural category.
TASTE, TERROIR, AND THE FRENCH STATE
Grapes for wine historically have been one of France's largest agricultural products, and apparently vignerons were the first group of taste producers to realize the possibilities inherent in promoting the link between place and quality; they were the first to take this foodview and use it to their economic advantage. The 1855 Bordeaux wine classifications are considered the first attempt by those involved in wine production and sales to promote the quality of wines by their place of origin. They were developed internally by those involved in the Bordeaux wine industry, particularly wine brokers, to be used at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris. These classifications, however, were not monitored by the French state. The use of ideas about place to make arguments about quality became increasingly important in the late nineteenth century, and it became part of a serious sociopolitical movement to protect French agricultural products in the early twentieth century, culminating with the founding of the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine in the 1930s and laws that supported the idea of appellations d'origine contrôlées.
Historian Kolleen Guy elegantly documents the initial efforts to create state-sanctioned and -supported controlled delimitations, establishing that terroir and the system of controlled appellations have a particularly French genealogy, beginning with champagne. By the belle époque era, champagne was an international commodity that symbolized France and Frenchness to elites around the globe, and the connection between commodity and nation was instrumental in initial justifications for the protection of champagne by the French state.
Guy's work, focusing on the period between 1890 and 1914, concerns both competing and allied interests of vignerons and négociants in the Champagne region at the turn of the century. Even at that time champagne was a beverage endowed with symbolic power and cultural capital. Historically, sparkling wines were an unintended product, the result of carbonic gas emerging from a secondary fermentation of yeasts. Many wines are capable of "sparkling," but champagne producers began to realize the upmarket potential of their sparkling beverage and worked hard to promote its distinctiveness. This was done with the creation of aristocratic genealogies and myths of patrimony, linking the drink, the place, and the producers to a storied past. Guy argues that by the belle époque, to drink champagne was to stake your claim to the civilized life. Champagne became a national brand in an international market, a commodity with tremendous symbolic and cultural capital. But who was reaping the rich rewards of the allure of champagne? As the eloquent vigneron René Lamarre states in the beginning of his editorial "Where Industry Meets Terroir," "I cannot repeat it enough: with the way that [wine] lists are drawn up today, within ten years people will no longer be acquainted with the name Champagne but with those of Roederer, Planckaert, Bollinger and it will not matter from which [grapes] these wines are produced."
The elevated status of champagne among the international bourgeoisie in fact did little to contribute to the livelihoods of the laborers in the fields and much to threaten their identity. The local response was to turn to terroir, to fight for champagne as a product of the soil rather than a placeless pretty label. The vignerons wanted to retain some proprietary rights to the name champagne, now used all over the globe, so they turned to the soil. The agrarian roots of the movement to create protection for place and products situate the history of terroir. The need to valorize the soils and grapes was particularly acute for growers in this region, since champagne is a blended wine, and large family estates dominated as négociants, responsible for crushing, blending, aging, and marketing the wines. Grapes and soil were the growers' only means of controlling the appropriation of champagne. A series of events, especially the phylloxera epidemic of the 1860s, which threatened vignerons and négociants alike, helped legitimate the idea that Champagne as a defined region was fundamental to the identity of champagne as a beverage, nationally or internationally.
As the link between taste and place evolved in the early twentieth century, taste producers, particularly the vignerons, involved the French state, arguing that legal and political means were needed to protect unique French products from international competition. They succeeded. The vignerons of the Champagne region were the first to use the legal system to create delimitations on production related to locale. The fundamental goal of the first law (initially passed in 1905, and then amended in 1908) was to protect against fraud; those who "falsely attributed the location of origin of the merchandise as a way to sell their goods" could be punished by law. This legal decree, however, did not deal with what made certain locations unique. By 1908 the law was made more specific, stating that a delimitation could concern a wine that had an association with a region that was "local, loyal, and constant," and Champagne was granted that status of "the first recognized regional delimitation." Certain areas were judged to be in the "Champagne region," and only wines produced in those areas could be sold with the "Champagne" label. This was the beginning of a system that protected and promoted French wine and would ultimately be extended to cheese and other products.
Excerpted from THE TASTE OF PLACE by AMY B. TRUBEK Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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