Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Do Your Vegetables Have "Terroir"?

Terroir is a french term that describes the taste of a place. It is often used to describe qualities of wine, coffee, cheese, chocolate, and tea.

To understand terroir, you have to consider the interaction of a plant and its home. Many of the food products described with this term are products that are perennials, often living for a long time. For cheese, this is referring to the grasses and forbs that the animals eat.

Being a perennial means that the plant's genetic makeup and biochemicals interact over long periods of time with the geography, soil, local climate, and other organisms that live there to develop a unique flavor. This flavor is then enhanced by the farmer's relationship to the plants and their products- in french this refers to the savior-faire of the farmer.

But what about annual plants like vegetables? Do they have enough time to interact with a place to reveal the characteristics of that place?

Some people insist on growing tomatoes in the same plot of land year after year, claiming it improves flavor over time. This could be considered developing terroir. But if we practice crop rotation as part of our disease control regime, it is difficult to believe that a single crop will have a taste of place, unless we broaden our scope and think about all of our vegetables as a single population.

Over time, I think the flavor of the place we choose to grow will reveal itself in our foods because we are continuously growing a (mostly) fixed group of plants, each imparting its influence on the soil and vice versa. If we develop our relationship to a place by tending crops over many years, those crops will develop a distinct flavor endemic to that place.

As stewards of the land, we gardeners and farmers can bring the flavor of the land and the special relationship we have with that land to our tables. We can gaze upon our food and realize the complex interactions that made it all possible.

Bon appetit!

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