This time, I review the book Tasting French Terroir, subtitled The History of an Idea, by Michael Parker. At Amazon it costs around £20.
Firstly, the title: I am not really sure why the word tasting features here at all, as it has a surprisingly small role in the book, even if food and drink in general get more coverage. It is however very much a history of the idea of terroir in France, going back to the 16th Century, and with a few mentions of classical antecedents. There is little mention of terroir in other countries, but as far as I know it is a concept that is exclusively French in origin, so I suppose that is fair enough.
The book is serious and academic, so not a light and quick read. But on the plus side for someone with limited time, it is not as daunting as it might first appear, as the actual text finishes on page 164, the remaining third or so being given over to notes. This scientist-cum-engineer had to check on the meanings of quite a few words, but beyond that the language was clear, precise and nicely crafted.
My big lesson from reading it was the sheer range of historical views on what constitutes terroir and how desirable it is. Thus, it puts the modern idea of terroir firmly in its place: one interpretation amongst many, though an interpretation that was glimpsed at in various stages of history. I attempt below to give an overview of some of the ideas of terroir discussed in the book.
Even on very fundamental questions, there were widely divergent views. We tend now to see terroir as conferring different characteristics, all positive, on food and drink. But another perspective emphasised more the effect of terroir on quality. In this view, some terroirs were better than others, and if the connoisseur wanted the best produce, then only the very best terroir in France could yield it. Others saw terroir more from the farming point of view. Thus, when planting a certain crop, the correct terroir must be selected to get a good yield.
However, terroir had relevance to a lot more than food and drink. It was of course also about plants, trees and animals, but more significantly a lot of discussion also focussed on the terroir characteristics of people. This included their appearance, behaviour, dialect, and even the style and quality of their poetry.
There is also the issue of whether terroir characteristics are desirable or not. For long periods of French history terroir influence was regarded as negative, and something to be supressed in favour of good Parisian taste, and that of the French court. But at other times terroir was definitely positive, or it was more nuanced. For example a degree of terroir character could be positive, but it had to be tamed by Parisian culinary arts. Others were of the view that there were both good and bad terroir expressions.
There is little in the book about the mechanisms by which terroir worked its magic, so I presume it was not discussed much in the source texts either. As today however, it seemed that soil, water, climate and landscape were all important factors. There was at one point a rather literal interpretation of goût de terroir, which suggested that you could get it water that was first shaken with soil. Apparently the flavours in the water were also present in the produce of the land. Otherwise there was little indication of how to recognise the goût de terroir.
There is also little coverage of how early views of terroir contributed to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system in the 20th century, and how ideas in the late 20th and early 21st century developed. Perhaps there is another book in those topics. I look forward to reading that book should it become available, and also to seeing future developments in the concept of terroir.