American Terroir

Over a year ago I started reading American Terrior: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields by Rowan Jacobsen. It’s the type of book where you can read a chapter, put it down, and come back to it weeks or months later and pick it right back up. Which is exactly how I read the book. Jacobsen researches various different foods and looks deeply at how the place they come from influences so much about them. Overall it’s a fascinating, delightful read if you are interested in food and what makes one region able to produce something another cannot.

He explores foods all over North American, going to Montreal to look at a foraging restaurant there, he’s in Vermont talking with a maple syrup producer. He talks about chocolate and avocados in Mexico. In each chapter he delves deeply into the subject, but he doesn’t get so detailed that you get bored, it’s just the right amount of information, and he ends each chapter with recipes and links to more information. I recommend it.

I read the kindle version, so highlights are associated with locations.

There was something about Farmer Brown’s land—the soil, the water, the microclimate. He had the best spot, and he had the best corn. That’s terroir. (loc 80)

Terroir almost invariably finds its roots in bedrock, in the workings of tectonic plates and glaciers, along with the realities of climate and geography. (loc 97)

While the appellation system began as a guarantee of quality, it became part of the national soul—a map of the flavors of France. (loc 189)

If our terroir is immature, it’s also youthful, with all the energy and exuberance that brings. If you want to tour the museum of old terroir masterpieces, go to France and Italy. If you want to visit the galleries where new artists are trying new things, look around America. (loc 201)

Food has always helped to define our lives and anchor us to a particular time and place on this planet. To love food that is real and distinctive—that could not come from anywhere other than where it does—is to love the myriad and dazzling ways that life has adapted to the many landscapes of Earth. It is to rebel against the flat meaninglessness of sprawl. (loc 246)

Because until the advent of the modern grocery, every food had a story. Anonymous food is not the norm; it’s the aberration. Whether we are buying it from the farmer at a market, or growing it ourselves, or, further back, gathering it ourselves, food comes heavy with history and meaning. (loc 259)

Coffee drinkers have no time for contemplation. Whether it’s Turkish men arguing loudly around a table while sipping thimblefuls of black mud, Italians knocking back an espresso in a stand-up bar while dodging their mother and their mistress, or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs brewing another pot while burning through venture capital, coffee drinkers always seem to be on the verge of losing control of their lives. (loc 909)

In so many organisms, a challenging environment seems to foster character. (loc 1233)

It’s about the most stress-free life an organic apple tree could have, and it makes an important point about terroir: Mimicking nature is not always the goal (as Europe’s winemakers learned long ago). Sometimes, like William Faulkner, a thing achieves its best expression in its native landscape. Sometimes, like Cormac McCarthy, it has to head west to find itself. (loc 1408)

We speak of “honey” as if it is one thing, but honey is really a category of foods made by bees using plants of all kinds. There are as many honeys as there are fruits, and they are just as diverse. (loc 1625)

The handful of plants that comprise most American diets have not been chosen because they are particularly compelling, but because they are convenient and efficient. (loc 2394)

Yet the memorable wines, the ones that stay with me, aren’t trying to be attractive. More girl-next-door than performer, they are quirky and sometimes even flawed from a conventional perspective. They just are what they are. These are the wines to engage. You won’t get a striptease out of them, but you may discover something genuinely lovely. You may even luck into a steady relationship. (loc 3523)

The smell can be off-putting, but many of us, like Pavlov’s dogs, quickly learn to associate it with the deliciousness to follow. By digesting protein, the brevibacteria break it down into amino acids, also known as umami, the kind of savory, mouth-filling taste that makes many people howl in crazed joy. (loc 4216)

That has been the trend all over the world: increasing industrialization, automation, and sameness. Which makes the recent outbreak of artisan cheesemaking in the United States—Nature asserting herself in a dazzling display of terroir-driven delights—all the more astonishing. (loc 4297)

We do this because chocolate is our most complex food. More than six hundred different aromatic molecules have been identified in it. Chocolate is not one specific flavor so much as everything you can think of; it’s the brown taste you get when you mix together all the colors in the flavor box. (loc 4459)