The Future of Terroir, and Terroir of the Future
An Essay by Peter Schlagel
First, let us praise the power of an impassioned people. Their common yearning for a better life, an authentic meaningful living shared openly with family and friends that fills their hearts and minds and souls with pride and joy, their iron refusal to suffer further abuse or intimidation, their rising up together to transcend fear and hold their ground – these dramatic courageous recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have inspired people all around the world and forever changed these ancient lands.
Such is the transforming power of a new vision of a life of freedom in each familiar long-suffering locality, the universal human need to be free to work and create and love and live with family, neighbors, colleagues and countryman, one unique neighborhood, city and country at a time.
Such, also, is the transformed “good ground” and terra firma of a new vision of terroir whose roots reach deep into the rich ground of a living community’s unique heart and soul and local cultural legacy extending beyond place and time and environment.
This new philosophy of hospitality and cuisine, this new vision of “La Vie de Terroir”, has a long and noble ancestry. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the French who first introduced and popularized the term “terroir” as an ingenious marketing innovation to sell French wines by highlighting its origins from unique local vineyards and chateaus.
Others (notably Spain and Portugal) had developed systems of classification based on local origins, but it was the French advocacy of terroir that proved most successful. It became so popular that their system of "Appellation d' Origine Controlee" (A.O.C.) came to dominate the making of the finest French wines, Champagne and Cognac.
The actual mix of grape varietals was secondary to the wine’s region of origin. As fine winemaking took root in new regions around the world (such as North and South America, Australia and South Africa), the particular qualities of new wines in new soils gave birth to entirely new styles of wines expressing the local character of their new cultural and physical terroir.
Along with advances in knowledge about successful practices of growing various wine grapes and scientifically informed techniques of winemaking, the concept of terroir expanded to include all the local variations of time and place, of season and soil. But it is only recently that a new vision of a more complex terroir has begun to take wing, an integrated multi-dimensional terroir whose center of gravity is creative culture rather than physical environment.
From this expanded point of view, it is the rich interplay of local cultural values and master artisan traditions with the particular qualities of local soil, season and sensibilities that gives rise to the highest quality of unique local products grounded in historical cultural conceptions of meaning, excellence and depth.
Thus, while we can speak of the highest standards of French haute cuisine and the best pairings of various superior quality wine styles for each traditional course, we can also envision new styles of quality wines and beverages steeped in other great cultural heritages with profoundly different cuisines and standards of value and excellence.
For example, China (“Our Land”) has one of the world’s oldest and most diverse cultural histories reaching back many thousands of years and encompassing a vast and diverse array of different local peoples, languages, traditions and environments.
Yet the central cultural tradition of a shared community-style meal with all dishes served together on a large communal table does not lend itself easily to the foreign European tradition of sequential courses. This kind of cultural difference can give rise to new creative additions to an already rich tradition of diverse cuisines, a new terroir of the future.
India, similarly, also has one of the world’s longest and richest cultural traditions including thousands of local variations. The innovative marriage of modern technical knowledge with local cultural legacies and wisdom gleaned from thousands of years of practical experience can be blended and transformed by the creative choices of great chefs to yield new exciting samples of the art of cuisine as shared gifts from surprising new terroir.
This view of terroir honors its esteemed heritage while extending its depth and range to include new creative meaning grounded in the amazing wide diversity of local practice, culture and standards of value that give shared significance to our common human experience.
Just as the cultural revolution born from the acts of brave Egyptian people has forever changed the familiar ancient lands around the Nile, so can the creative choices of food artisans, from growers to chefs to those sharing fine meals, forever change the honored traditions of our shared cuisine experiences through the new terroir of the future.
We are grateful to the 80 million people of Egypt for reminding us that the daily art of cuisine and hospitality we all share and enjoy is made possible by a connected cultural terroir grounded in freedom, respect and civility. We thank you for your courage, your example, and for this great gift of a hard lesson relearned and freely given to our common culinary world.
Your Culinary World copyright Peter Schlagel/Ana Kinkaid 2011