So What is Terroir?

Following feedback (and some unpublishable comments) on my last blog it is all too apparent that I need to explain as best I can what Terroir actually is. It is, of course, a French word, but with no direct translation. Many US sites delve into the wine elements and Wikipedia explain it as a ‘sense of place’.

The best succinct translation is ‘The value of Soil’, but this is of course sadly lacking as to the French it means something much more than this – but this is probably because we Anglophones massively undervalue the importance of soil.

Having spoken to many French, from different regions and both urban and rural, there is in fact little variation to what terroir means to them and it is clear that there is much philosophy wrapped up in the word. ‘I taste therefore I am’.

To give it my best shot: Terroir is the marriage of all the sciences in a naturally bordered area, it is the natural and man made elements, it is the flora and fauna, it is the people, it is you and what you are looking at, what you smell and what you taste.

Terroir is a perfect landscape. One which enables the production of a food, drink or another product (for example; pottery, timber and non timber products), which is as perfect as it can be for the landscape in which it is created.

Soil is affected by everything and the more natural the landscape it will contain the greatest variety of nature for that particular climate, elevation etc.,. The greater the variety the better the taste. Cut a tree down it will affect the soil adversely. Plant a tree it will improve the soil.

Most importantly, and maybe why Terroir creates an element of concern for many ecologists and nature conservationists, is that it enables a sustainable (in the true sense of the word) strong local economy.

There are many examples of terroir areas in the UK and there are many areas where terroir does not apply in France or is abused to the extent that it is no longer applicable. Indeed the success of certain terroir produce has led to intensification which destroys the terroir and yet the product is sold as such.

It is the areas where terroir cannot happen, common in the Paris basin region of France, which are ideal for intensification. The UK are very lucky having the widest range of soil and climate zones in a very small area – thus terroir products should be of more worth than competing produce. There are many farmers and smallholders in the UK who have been highly successful at creating the very best from very little much to the chagrin of the wider farming lobby and the multinational pesticide or fertiliser companies – which is a great thing.

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1 Comment

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One response to “So What is Terroir?

  1. Roderick Leslie

    Picking up on your response to my comment on the original blog, yes, the British people may be reluctant to give up their luxury diet but the point I was trying to make was that the food security argument is sold fraudulently on the idea that we will all starve if we take the foot off the accelerator – whereas we are already producing enough food to more than sustain ourselves.

    I am, however, much more sympathetic to your argument for ‘Terroir’ here, a landscape adapted to its unique qualities producing quality food. However, i don’t see the trend in agriculture doing that much for it – alongside the relatively limited success stories in both France and the UK larger areas are being homogenised and smaller producers forced out of business by the scramble for ‘cheap food’ which is more about supermarket profits than consumers.

    What I would certainly disagree with – and in some ways it summarises the problems in land use debate (and I would emphasise this is by no means a comment to you alone !) is the presentation of options as mutually exclusive – and I do think the industrial farming movement is at the bottom of the problem, which does not reflect the realities for many farmers: even with subsidies effective farming has already virtually collapsed in some parts of even the English uplands – and rural de-population is a much bigger issue throughout much of Europe. Even in the UK we have room for a range of different approaches – it is forceful institutional resistance, often using sentiment as a tool, that prevents the serious consideration of wider oprtions – of the sort put forward by the Natural Capital Committee.

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