A Brief History of Terroir

With COVID-19 keeping us all indoors I’ve been doing a lot of cooking. This is a recent think piece-in-progress about gastronomy and the French notion of Terroir. This piece, as yet unpublished, is a potted history of the concept of Terroir and how it influences the food we buy and the way we cook. Starting with August Escoffier and moving into modern times it attempts to document some of the cultural nuances around food and food production.




    Authors' own

On July 27, 1870, a young soldier named August Escoffier lay face down in the dust on the outskirts of the small village of Gravelotte in an ordinarily insignificant corner of northeastern France. It was unseasonably warm–a “dog day,” he would later recall, and young Escoffier was creeping along very quietly–he was hunting a rabbit. The last rabbit in the area, it seemed, as most of the 100,000 French and almost 200,000 Prussian soldiers camped in the region were doing much the same, and pickings were slim. History teaches us that Escoffier would go on to become the father of modern gastronomy. Still, on July 27, 1870, he was breathing dirt and heat, trying to find a meal to feed a small group of grim-faced, out-gunned French officers who wanted little more than a decent bit of dinner and to survive the Franco-Prussian war. Unfortunately, the army had provided the chef little to work with–as armies do, so Escoffier did the only thing he could given his circumstance, he returned to the land.

Escoffier got his rabbit in the end and agonized, in his way, over how best to cook it. Eventually, taking out his frying pan with the resignation, “There’s a war on, and it’s getting late,” he proceeded to sauté his prize, with six large onions, pork fat, and some potato chips. He made sauce from some cognac, and the grateful officers summed the meal up in just one word, “Delicious.”

If, like me, you feel a powerful need to know the taste of that particular rabbit, then you are, knowingly or not, a fan of Terroir. This is precisely what Terroir looks like when it’s staring back at you from the plate, the shell, or the glass. Terroir is the taste of a place–in this case, framed within a locally grown and sourced, organic, free-range rabbit, enhanced with the flavors of onion, pork fat, cognac, adrenalin, and cordite, and framed in the mise-en-scene of a frontier town of no importance, save for a forgettable cameo in the history of border relations between France and Germany.
Defining Terroir is about as slippery as stalking a twitchy, battle-fatigued rabbit. There is no direct English translation for this uniquely French term. It is a concept so profoundly culturally embedded that it has simply been appropriated as-is. When Escoffier’s officers dined on his lapin de Gravelotte, they described it as “delicious.” Proponents of Terroir would disagree, saying that it was more than delicious–it was the quintessence of the battlefields of Alsace and Champagne, at the height of the Franco-Prussian war, cooked “a cappella” if you will, under a battlefield sky by one of the greatest chefs who has ever lived.

For the French, Terroir has always contained an implicit understanding of how quirks of a region, geology, soil, water, and microclimate, coupled with the peculiarities of circumstance, culture, and production process, can inform the personality and flavor of a particular piece of produce, be it a cheese, and ham, a wine or even a bit of gnarly war-rabbit.

For lovers of Terroir, it is this sense of “place” which matters most. Enthusiasts suggest a depth to the term, which offers more meaning than simply “soil” or “territory.” For them, Terroir includes the culturally embedded practices inherent in making the wine, the cheeses, or sausage links. Terroir is a taste imbued by the culture, elan, heritage, and attitudes of those who create the product. There remains a real sense that there is an abiding spiritual characteristic that is best sensed by more “viscerally attuned” organs than the brain, especially the eye, the tongue, the nose, and the belly. In short, analytical and critical faculties are welcome so long as they pertain only to the quality of the produce and its preparation; but steer clear of any critical unpacking and empirical digestion of the concept itself.

Of the many things we grow and ingest which have any claim to Terroir, from coffee to cheese, anchovies to oysters, it is wine that has the most persistent assertion. It is no coincidence that the history of wine production is influenced by another formidable history, that of the Catholic church. Where Terroir claims an almost mystical connection between the things man produces from the land, Catholicism deploys the notion of transubstantiation to establish a mystical connection between produce–bread and wine–and the body and blood of the savior. Seen from the perspective of transubstantiation, Terroir presents as the Deus in the all-too-human Machinas of wine-making, ham curing, cheese aging, and brandy sniffing. It elevates the makers’ efforts, culture, and land. In turn, it imbues the finished product with a special yummy goodness, which defies measurement and critique.

In his authoritative text on the topic, James Wilson captures some of the essence of the elusive nature of Terroir in the vineyard: “The true concept [or Terroir] is not easily grasped but includes physical elements of the vineyard habitat–the vine, subsoil, siting, drainage, and microclimate. Beyond the measurable ecosystem, there is an additional dimension–the spiritual aspect that recognizes the joys, the heartbreaks, the pride, the sweat, and the frustrations of history.” Crucial to our understanding of Terroir is that there is something irreducible about it. You can steal the recipe and make your own, copying every element right down to the genetics, but you cannot duplicate the esprit, the human effort, and the embedded heritage behind it, for there is no recipe for that, nor will there ever be. It might be a romantic idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.


These days any child can list, off the top of their head, a catalog of gastronomic delights which enjoy exceptional standing in our estimation through their specificity of origin and the renown of their production processes. We no longer even bother with declaring the type of product they refer to; the place name is usually sufficient indication of what we are talking about: Parmesan, Gruyère, Darjeeling, Yirgacheffe, Burgundy, Champagne, Bordeaux, Roquefort, Parma, Tequila, Chianti, Brie. These places “of terroir” are embedded in the culinary psyche in the same way that more modern brand names have replaced the functional name of an item, for example, Xerox, Q-tip, Starbucks, BWM, Apple Mac, etc.

After 400 years of performing a kind of geographic long-division of Terroir and identity in their heads, the French finally formalized a system of terroir recognition under a branch of the ministry of agriculture and, in 1935, the National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) was born. Leave it to the French to establish a branch of the civil service whose job it was to regulate the quality of French produce according to its Terroir. And leave it to this ministry to ensure that everything with such an appellation carries an official state-endorsed stamp of approval testifying to this fact. Thus, an army of bureaucrats now ensures that cheese X, made from the milk of say, Montbéliarde cows which graze a specific area of hillside Y in say, Alsace, during the summer and eat only hay from the same hillside during winter, remains cheese X from region Y and no other cheesemaker, from any other part of the world can make any kind of claim to producing such a cheese. Think of the INAO as being the official body that enforces a sort of agricultural copyright law.


When Terroir becomes an official designation through a body like the INAO, it is called an “appellation,” and this notion of appellation is France’s gift to globalization. Appellations are what happens to Terroir when it graduates from a reputable university with a master’s in finance and marketing. If Terroir is a way of talking about the taste of a place, an appellation is a way of trademarking the taste so that it cannot be produced elsewhere. Through a system of appellations, only wine made wonderfully pétillant in its bottle in a specific region of France can be called Champagne; everything else is “sparkling wine” or the more marketable méthode champenoise. Once a product has an appellation, it also seems to have an appropriately elevated price tag and can begin its ascendency to the top shelf in the supermarket. For example, Ethiopian Yirgacheffee coffee is Arabica coffee with an appellation of origin. One can expect the price to be a little higher than that of other Ethiopian Arabica coffees–which are by no means unpleasant–but they are not from the same small farms found in this particular region of Ethiopia, privileged by both favorable Terroir and a long history of coffee production dating back to a time when it was chewed–primarily by slaves in transit to Mocca–and not quaffed by yuppies in cafés. If Terroir is for farmers and connoisseurs alike, then appellations are for copyright lawyers and Big Food concerns, and while appellations beget status, it is status which begets the fine fettle of profits imparted by Terroir and sung to the tune of the cash register.

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