Food carries with it an undeniable sense of place. Terroir is the concept of regions. Every area has unique characteristics and foods produced in different regions are unique: the soil, the climate, the geography and other environmental factors all influence the characteristics of the final product.
By Jeremy Ryland
It is an undeniable fact that a meal tastes better when eaten in the region it originates from. A simple bowl of pasta with white truffles and Chianti in Tuscany; cassoulet with a glass of grenache in Languedoc; Thai Tom Yum soup with jasmine tea in Bangkok; fresh oysters with a Tasmanian riesling just outside of Hobart. The flavours always seem better when eaten locally.
Why? It’s all about the terroir. Food carries with it an undeniable sense of place. Terroir is the concept of regions. It is a French term which literally translates as “land” but has the greater meaning of “a sense of place”.
Food is more than just what you eat. Terroir is the idea that food and wine have specific qualities that are influenced by the place of origin. The environment, the geography, the soil, the microclimate, how it is farmed and the people who tend to it, all influence everything about its taste, texture, smell, and overall quality. In its simplest form, butter tastes different and looks different when made from milk from cows grazing on different pastures.
Terroir is the basis of the French wine appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) which has defined the regulation of wine regions around the world. The French use the concept of terroir as a way of describing the unique aspects of a place that influence and shape the wine made from it. But long before the French developed this concept, the Ancient Greeks stamped amphorae of wines and olive oil with the seal of the region they came from. Monasteries would label their barrels or spirits. And Chinese traders identified their spices with their origins.
Burgundian cuisine: escargots de Bourgogne (Burgundy snails) with parsley
and garlic butter served with a glass of Chablis
This form of identification highlights the style, characteristics and flavours of a region and is now used to define particular products like artisan cheese, prosciutto, coffee, chocolate, etc. Experts will tell you that champagne cannot be made outside of the Champagne district as it is the region that makes champagne “champagne” – indeed this is now enshrined in law. Similarly, parmesan cheese can only come from Parma in Italy as the climate, the soil and the environment are important in giving parmesan its true character. But whilst it is true that these regions confer certain unique characteristics on these products, it does not mean that sparkling wine from other regions is poor or parmesan-like cheeses cannot be made elsewhere – they are just a little different with their own unique flavour profiles.
And of course, this also provides commercial advantages with branding and marketing. The importance of terroir affects the price of the agricultural product as well as the products made from the product. Branding, variety and farmer identification affect the price of a product. Chefs and bakers develop their own list of qualities they desire for their creations, and terroir affects these.
It is also possible to mimic terroir. De Beaurepaire Wines at Rylstone in NSW have found an area of limestone enriched alkaline soils with a cool micro-climate that is very similar to the Burgundy and Champagne regions of France, in which they can grow grapes which they handcraft into French-style wines.
But another aspect of terroir is the unique balance between the product and the area in which it was farmed/grown. Which brings me back to the pasta in Tuscany. Food and wine always taste better when eaten in the state of origin.
Tuscany combo - beef lasagna and Chianti wine
We are all familiar with the concept that heavy stodgy food from Northern England or Scotland tastes better when consumed in a cool climate similar to that found in Scotland – so we eat porridge in winter. Similarly, seafood tastes better when eaten close to the sea – a phenomenon exploited by Heston Blumenthal with his seafood dish “sounds of the sea” where he plays recordings of waves breaking whilst you eat it.
Hence the microclimate of a region can enhance the flavour experience of the foods produced in that region: the altitude, the smells of the vegetation, the humidity and even the local language can all affect the quality of a meal. It’s all about the regional experience, and why you should always “eat local” when travelling.
Every area has unique characteristics and foods produced in different regions are unique: the soil, the climate, the geography and other environmental factors all influence the characteristics of the final product. To experience a food or wine at its best, it should be consumed in its own terroir.
This is true of all regional foods and wines – whether in Europe or in Australia. This, of course, does not mean that we cannot eat regional foods outside of that region. That is impractical, as most of the foods we buy in the cities come from a long way away. But it is true that food and wine produced outside of their traditional regions often lose their individuality and taste – so much so that even the brightly lit supermarkets are trying to relate back to the sources using posters, different lighting and displays.
Classic Bavarian cuisine: Schweinshaxe (pork knuckle), Weisswurst
(white sausage), Weissbier (Wheat beer), Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and pretzles
Moreover, foods will generally taste better or more complete when matched with foods from the same region. And when matching food and wine, it is often preferable to select wines from the same region as the foods.
In Australia, we are blessed with one of the best and most varied food supplies in the world. Being a large country with varied climates, we can extend the normal seasons and world trade has eliminated seasonal scarcity. In the past, we could only have oranges and other fresh fruits and vegetables for about three months of the year – however, we can now have them all year round.
Some people feel that we should still focus on the seasons, concentrating on fresh local produce. Indeed, it is true that many fruits taste best when fresh, in their true season and not after long periods of storage. However, true seasonal dining would ultimately lead to shortages, reduced variety and economic issues.
We should; however, support our local suppliers wherever possible and ideally in their place of origin. This is the concept of regional cuisines, being revisited by several of our top chefs – serving fresh, seasonal, local produce in the region it was produced.
Barilla Bay oysters 'au naturel' and Moorilla Cloth Label Late Disgorged Sparkling 2006, both from Hobart
Gault&Millau is a fan of AussieCuisine and of regional cuisines. We will be developing regional guides to show off our producers, our winemakers and our regional chefs. And we encourage you to go to the regions and experience the produce in its own terroir – in its own “sense of place”. The flavours will always be better!