Tasting French Terroir: The History of an Idea

Tasting French Terroir: The History of an Idea

by Thomas Parker

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This book explores the origins and significance of the French concept of terroir, demonstrating that the way the French eat their food and drink their wine today derives from a cultural mythology that developed between the Renaissance and the Revolution. Through close readings and an examination of little-known texts from diverse disciplines, Thomas Parker traces terroir’s evolution, providing insight into how gastronomic mores were linked to aesthetics in language, horticulture, and painting and how the French used the power of place to define the natural world, explain comportment, and frame France as a nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520277519
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture , #54
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Thomas Parker is Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Vassar College. He is the author of Volition, Rhetoric, and Emotion in the Work of Pascal.

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Tasting French Terroir

The History of an Idea

By Thomas Parker


Copyright © 2015 Thomas Parker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96133-3


Rabelais's Table and the Poets of the Pléiade

BOTH FRANÇOIS RABELAIS'S sixteenth-century mock epic in prose and the writings of the group of poets known as the Pléiade provide great insight into how fictional representations of food and wine linked origins to identity. Consider the two influences in juxtaposition: on the one hand, Rabelais presents depictions of regional, cultural, linguistic, and culinary boundaries in order to transgress them, building walls only to break them down and create harmony among readers. On the other hand, the poets of the Pléiade use language on wine to reaffirm territorial distinctions, establishing identity and harmony by forming communities within regional walls. These influences in the realm of fiction created an important dialogue that dovetailed later in the century with a burgeoning corpus of wisdom texts on wine, farming, and food to mark the beginning of terroir's modern evolution. This chapter details that phenomenon, elucidating the literary contributions behind a specifically French brand of culinary aesthetics and regional identity in the Renaissance.


There is no better place to begin a discussion on the role of food in France's cultural imagination than Rabelais, who remains widely known for the extravagant culinary exploits depicted in his writing. Besides recounting epic culinary consumption, his five-volume complete works invite readers into a bawdy and biting satire of religion, a criticism of unjust war, and a hilarious yet profound representation of humanist values initially centered around the adventures of two giants: Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. The second book of the series, which I examine closely below, The Very Horrific Life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel (1534), precedes the first in terms of the narrative's chronology, and begins with the birth of Gargantua to his parents Grandgousier and Gargamelle. Even though the term terroir appears only once in the work (in chapter 49 of the third volume of the series), Rabelais succeeds intaking food, place, and identity center stage throughout his opus.

Ironically, Rabelaisian food descriptions construct place in the opposite way from what one would expect: just as often as he uses geographical features to create individual identities, Rabelais elides distinctions by conflating food and people from different areas. Far from causing the significance of the provenance to disappear, this tactic has just the opposite effect, reaffirming the importance of origin as an object of transgression. Nowhere is this more evident, as I will show immediately below, than when initially stark representations of place and cuisine are challenged by linguistic tropes and depictions, blotting out the credibility of regional connoisseurship through comical images of an indiscriminate, all-consuming body.

From the beginning of The Very Horrific Life, even before the birth of Gargantua, Rabelais brings these strategies to bear, providing an example of the importance of food in a "bodily" description of the giant's father, Grandgousier (the name signifies "big throat"), that doubles as a characterization of France's culinary wealth:

Grandgousier was a great joker in his time, loving to drink hearty as well as any man who was then in the world, and fond of eating salty. To this end, he ordinarily had on hand a good supply of Mainz and Bayonne hams, plenty of smoked ox tongues, an abundance of andouilles in season and mustard salted beef. Backed up by botargo, a provision of sausages (not those of Bologna, for he feared Lombard mouthfuls), but of Bigorre, of Longaulnay, of La Brenne, and of La Rouergue.

The accumulation of meats and sausages suggests geographic diversity humorously in the fatty, intestinal offerings from the four corners of the country (roughly speaking, Mainz or "Mayence," though now in Germany, was historically one of these corners, Bayonne another, Brittany and Provence, represented in the list of sausages, the two others). These copious preparations speak to the variety of France's offerings and terroirs, while casting Grandgousier as an icon of France as he symbolically incarnates the country's collective wares by enthusiastically ingesting them. Yet, though the passage constructs terroirs in the reader's imagination, it also breaks them down, as the regional specialties are assimilated indifferently in Grandgousier's belly.

The same phenomenon occurs linguistically: the passage reflects culinary variety in the food catalogued, mixing common French vernacular terms with strange names and places (e.g., the un-French sounding word botargo, a Mediterranean caviar preparation made from red mullet, and the Breton place-name Longaulnay). Just as with foods, the names serve as often to destabilize identity as to frame it. As the Rabelaisian narrator himself later points out, the name of one of the primary characters, the giant Pantagruel, unites two linguistic groups and two lands: panta means all in Greek and gruel signifies thirst in Arabic. Gargantua, for his part, is baptized both for his enormous throat (garganta means throat in both Spanish and Portuguese) and for the name's resemblance to the bodily function gargouiller (to gurgle), a noise that in medieval French mixes connotations of ingestion and excretion, since it can just as easily apply to the throat as to the intestines. Finally Gargamelle, Gargantua's mother, has a Langdocien name signifying throat (gargamello) that originally derives from the Arabic for the same word. Like the meat items above, specific countries, regions, and linguistic heritages are summarily evoked only to be immediately subsumed in the all-assimilating umbrella of Rabelais's prose, inviting readers to leave pretensions about their own geographic identity behind in favor of collective merriment.

This breaking of boundaries is mirrored in the stories' fascination with the excess of physical quantities and the overstepping of limits. Although the giants' prodigious anatomies and unerring drive for culinary satisfaction make them convincing gourmands (Gargantua is born shouting an imperative, "Drink, drink, drink"), they are less credible as gourmets. Indeed, Grandgousier, Gargamelle, and other characters, such as Panurge and Frère Jean, who appear in the later volumes, tend toward indiscriminate eating, pleasure, and song. This bacchanalian atmosphere is constantly recalled by the language play of the passages, which seems to suggest the importance of excessive drinking over measured enjoyment: the text is peppered with maxims such as "it is to me an eternity of boozing and boozing for eternity," "always drinking," "forever watering," and "keep drinking, you'll never die." Each quote accentuates excess by omitting any mention of chronological borders or physical limits, implying the triumph of an all-encompassing gluttonous, corporal inebriation over mindful consumption.

Nowhere is Rabelais's excess presented more clearly than when the narrator describes Gargantua's table manners in the first book. The studied appreciation of foods and origins through moderation and refinement could not be further removed from this graphic, bodily depiction:

Meanwhile four of his men threw into his mouth, one after the other continuously, mustard by the pailful. Then he drank a horrific draft of white wine to relieve his kidneys. Afterward, he ate according to the season, food to suit his appetite, and he stopped eating when his belly was dilated. For drinking he had no end nor rule, for he said that the bounds and limits of drinking were when, as the person drank, the cork in his slippers swelled upward a half a foot.

Between the doses of mustard, the images of kidneys and bellies (the choicest cuts always get less emphasis than the entrails in Rabelais), the gulps of wine, and the distended midsections, the reader realizes readily that these exploits at the table hardly symbolize culinary refinement. The real key lies in the last sentence: For drinking he had no end nor rule. The rest of this book will show that connoisseurship, as it took shape in France, consisted in drawing limits and cataloguing flavors according to the specificity of alimentary origins in a discerning and mindful way. The Rabelaisian character doles out counterexamples: he exists in a world of excess where the bounds and limits evoked are most often the ones his unrestrained ingestion breaks.

One of the most bawdy—and bodily—moments of the five books illustrates this point perfectly. The scene in question is one where Rabelais evokes wine in the context of excretion rather than of discriminating culinary appreciation. As Gargantua and Grandgousier are discussing the merits of various swabs for wiping behinds (the suggestions range from goose necks, to cats, to velvet), Gargantua's father praises and encourages his son for his prodigious findings and rewards him with the promise of wine: "Oh," said Grandgousier, "[...] go on with your ass-wipative discourse, I pray you. And, by my beard! For one puncheon you shall have sixty casks, I mean of good Breton wine, which does not grow in Brittany, but in that good Véron region." The humor lies not only in the excessive amounts of wine given in recompense but also in its specificity, and the emphasis on its goodness in the unpalatable scatological context. More importantly, the misnomer vin breton constitutes a telling sign of the territorial ambivalence and language games that run throughout Rabelais's work: there is a disjunction between the name of the wine and its origin. The wine is from Véron, a very small place-specific viticultural town close to Chinon, but it is here named for the Bretons, who were known for their excessive consumption of Loire wine, shipped upriver for their personal use.

Such transgression of borders (both geographical borders and the social borders of good taste) ultimately reaffirms the existence of the identities those borders frame. This is apparent in Rabelais's modern legacy in the Loire Valley, where most of the fictional exploits take place. That association is a source of pride in the Touraine region, where a recent festival sponsored by the local Maison des vins and tourist office offered a conference about Rabelais's imprint on the collective local imagination. To give a particularly compelling example, despite the ambiguity and the "ass-wipative" context in which the reference to vin breton occurs, the tourist board of Véron continues to cite that passage today in its website documentation of the region, using Rabelais's cultural capital to bolster Véron as a perennial wine-producing terroir distinct from other regions.


When it comes to framing French Renaissance wine culture in both prose and poetry, there is no element quite so central as the mythological character Bacchus. Half man and half god (his Greek analogue, Dionysos, is the son of the mortal Semele and of Zeus), Bacchus was the protector of vines, overseeing viticulture in a rational, naturalized context. He was also the god of drunken revelry and excess. Renaissance literature inscribed these multiple aspects of the myth into its pages and, in so doing, created a broader meaning for wine that continues to endure in French culture. Indeed, literary fiction helped reinforce images of wine as a beverage with a purpose beyond either mere sustenance or the medicinal ends that otherwise preoccupied the period's wine writing.

In the pages of Rabelais, Bacchus is a force not only of inebriation and folly, but also of conviviality, universality, and great wisdom. In the group of sixteenth-century Renaissance poets known as the Pléiade, Bacchus often connotes enjoying friendship and maximizing the pleasure of daily life. But there is another element at play. Through representations borrowed from the Virgilian tradition of didactic poetry, Bacchus appears in a naturalistic register of farming and place-specific wines, deployed not to celebrate culinary culture in itself, but to create linguistic identity and foster poetic inspiration. Instead of standing for a force of inebriation, he represents lucidity; instead of defining terroir in negative terms, he circumscribes it positively in a discourse on place and the origin of language. Renaissance French bacchic culture at once transcends and frames terroir as a trope for literary and culinary identity.

In Gargantua, bacchic references, specifically to Silenus, traditionally the tutor of Bacchus, and the donkey that almost always accompanies him, appear in the opening lines of the prologue. There, the narrator invokes Bacchus by way of the passage in Plato's Symposium where Alcibiades likens Socrates to Silenus. Glossing Plato, Rabelais invites readers to "consume" the pages that follow, assimilating the reading with the practice of having a cool drink. In other words, the consumption in question is not the highfalutin stuff of pompous literary pronouncements, nor of highly discerning culinary choices for that matter, but a refreshment that comes easily and naturally in a sort of literary inebriation that Rabelais invites his readers to share.

In fact, after the first pages, one might conclude that in order to read Rabelais seriously, one must paradoxically read him for fun, as if enjoying a glass or two of wine.

Most illustrious drinkers, and you, most precious poxies—for you, not to others my writings are dedicated—Alcibiades, in Plato's dialogue entitled The Symposium, praising his master Socrates, incontrovertibly the prince of philosophers, among other things says he is like the Sileni. Sileni were in olden times little boxes, such as we see nowadays in apothecaries' shops, painted on the outside with merry frivolous pictures [...] but inside they preserved fine drugs [...] and other valuables.

In Greco-Roman mythology, Sileni are half-man and half-goat followers and companions to Bacchus. That mix of human and animal forms foreshadows Rabelais's overstepping of linguistic, terrestrial, and social borders, but it also offers another, more important lesson. As the prologue explains, Alcibiades makes the comparison because Socrates, though ugly on the outside, contained infinite wisdom on the inside. This representation offers one of many contradictions that will endure throughout the work: drunken excess on the exterior ultimately leads to wisdom, virtue, and sobriety on the interior. As Rabelais points out, the boxes of pharmaceuticals are a metaphor for the book itself. The work is like a vessel holding great wisdom that the reader taps into through enjoyment. Laughter leads to an epiphany and to "superhuman understanding." For Rabelais, the understanding in question is not to be found in the end, but in the joyous means of the investigation. As the author hastens to add, borrowing and reversing the sense of an adage Erasmus applied to Demosthenes, his pages were composed with "more wine than oil." In other words, bacchic inspiration from wine contributed to the work's genesis more than labored travails completed with late-night lamp oil. Accordingly, readers are enjoined to consume the pages with joy.

This ethos pervades the five books of the series and provides a clear example of how a Rabelaisian ideal seeped into French culinary culture. In France today, there is a class of wines that are for easy drinking, referred to as vins de soif, or "wines for thirst." These wines hold no pretensions toward being the object of "serious" analysis and are intended to create flowing conversation and conviviality. To take one relevant example, the Loire Valley wine producers Catherine and Pierre Breton offer a "Cuvée Trinch," a direct reference, the label explains, to Rabelais. They bill it as fruity wine made with young vines, to drink without compunction or afterthought during a spontaneouslunch, in contrast with their more serious, contemplative "terroir" wines that need to be aged. The focus for the Trinch wine is on social communion rather than connoisseurship.


Excerpted from Tasting French Terroir by Thomas Parker. Copyright © 2015 Thomas Parker. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Terroir and the Culinary Roots of French Identity
1. Rabelais’s Table and the Poets of the Pleiade
2. The Plantification of People
3. Courtside Purity and the Academie Francaise’s Attack on the Earth
4. France’s Green Evolution: Terroir’s Expulsion from Versailles
5. Saint-Evremond and the Invention of Geographical Connoisseurship
6. Terroir and Nation Building: Boulainvilliers, Du Bos, and the Case of Class
7. The Normalization of Terroir: Paris and the Provinces
Conclusion: Terroir and Nation: From Geographic Identity to Psychogeography


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